Battle for the open internet: the story of net neutrality

Battle for the open internet: the story of net neutrality

In 2015, former President Barack Obama implemented new rules that sought to limit companies’ control over the internet. These new rules increased governmental oversight of broadband traffic. Prior to the introduction of what is known as “net neutrality,” a few companies had the ability to block or limit the content of their rivals. However, these new guidelines made internet service providers (ISPs) “public utilities,” according to a New York Times article from Nov. 29, and forbid companies from blocking or slowing down their rivals’ content. 

The main idea of net neutrality is that the internet should be equally accessible to all. One of the United Nation’s human rights is the right to expression, and freedom of information falls under that inalienable human right. Many consider open access to the internet to be a fundamental human right, although that is open to debate. 

This debate has come into the spotlight recently, as President Donald Trump’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman, Ajit Pai, introduced plans to get rid of the guidelines enacted in 2015. In May, Pai proposed a plan that would essentially dismantle the 2015 Open Internet Rules. There was a public comment period on this proposal until mid-August. Whittier College Assistant Professor of Marketing Kristen Smirnov says that this proposal is great “for the ISPs,” but bad for everybody else.

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As of Monday, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman called on the FCC to delay the vote in light of recent allegations that “more than half of the 21.7 million public comments” regarding net neutrality, submitted to the FCC during their public comment period, were fake comments. According to the New York Times, the allegations suggest that these comments “used temporary or duplicate email addresses and appeared to include false or misleading information.” As of yesterday, Dec. 6, Schneiderman was joined by FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, as well as the Internet Association (whose more than 40 members include companies such as Google and Amazon), urged the FCC to delay the vote on this proposal. As of now, the vote is set for Dec. 14. 

Some of the significant companies that have opposed the 2015 FCC regulations are Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon; prominent ISPs, that have wielded significant control over the internet despite the introduction of the Obama-era regulations. Pai’s proposal aims to change the legal basis for the rules of the U.S. Communications Act of of 1934. The technical change seems simple: changing it from Title II to Title I. However, this changes the ISPs’ role from common carriers (or “public utilities”) to “information services”, essentially disbanding FCC’s oversight powers. Some of the ISPs opposing the Obama-era rules claim that they “hurt investment in internet infrastructure,” as well as demonstrate the negative effects from a government’s increased involvement in private business. FCC Chairman Pai is one of three Republican members on the committee, all of whom have said they intend to vote “yes” on the proposal, while the two Democrat members have been in opposition to the proposal. 

Smirnov has heard of the potential effects of a net neutrality rollback from friends working overseas, who have seen countries with “tiered systems” in place. A tiered system means that ISPs would be able to do “different packages of access tiers . . . [where] if you want faster speeds for certain internet access whether on the web, through apps, [or] if you just don’t want your speeds to be throttled . . . you will have to pay more [for access].” Smirnov sees the internet as having been “a major driver of economic development and innovation in the country” since the mid-90s. This new plan  would put a lock on that, limiting free and easy access to the internet to those who could afford to pay more.  “The laws of treating data like electricity or water . . . it’s just dreadfully impactful—and I use the word dreadfully there very deliberately—to the poorer consumers in this country,” said Smirnov.

This issue has seen fierce opposition since Pai confirmed his plans to repeal these regulations in November. Without these rules, a select few powerful ISPs will have the power to control web traffic in terms of its speed and content. While Pai said that this repeal would not give ISPs the power to block websites or charge extra for certain content, it does open up questions about apps or services. According to the Associated Press, it was reported that, prior to these rules, AT&T was able to block internet calling services, such as Skype, on its cellular network for iPhone users. This would be possible if the rules regarding net neutrality were repealed. 

According to the FCC website, Ajit Pai served as FCC commissioner from 2012 until his appointment to FCC chairman in January 2017. However, Pai worked with Verizon Communications Inc. from 2001 to 2003, which further complicates this issue. Verizon is one of the ISPs that would greatly benefit from the repeal of these rules. 

When asked about what Whittier students should do to respond to this proposal, Professor Smirnov said that students should call their representatives to tell them how they feel regarding the proposal. Additionally, they should research the issue at hand in more depth, so that they are fully aware of the impact that this proposal will have on them. 

If students feel strongly about net neutrality, whether they support Pai’s proposal or not, then they can call or email the FCC to make their voice heard. Actively participating in democracy by expressing your opinions to those in government is a fundamental tenet of American Society.