Net Neutrality: a web of silence

     With another piece of contentious Net Neutrality regulation on the table, a lack of discussion has left people wondering about the implications such changes could cause. 

     However, more concerning is the tangible decrease in the level of public engagement compared to previous regulatory threats to Net Neutrality, namely the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA). These two pieces of legislation were introduced between 2011 and 2012, inciting protests from many major websites including Google and Wikipedia. Wikipedia’s response was to black out the entire site for a day to demonstrate the frightening possibilities of internet censorship. To the organizations and individuals who have championed the fight to maintain an uncensored internet, this change in the reaction of the public — although slight — is terrifying. Furthermore, many people are still unaware, despite it being public record, that twice in the last decade, two court cases regarding the legality of classifying internet service under Title II of the Telecommunications Act were much closer decisions than anticipated. There is a pervasive ignorance regarding the issue of Net Neutrality which will allow the passing of recently proposed legislation. So … What do you need to know?

      Title I & Title II: What’s the difference? The Telecommunications Act of 1996, which is available in its entirety on the FCC’s website, was, at the time of its passing, the first major regulatory change to the telecommunications industry in 61 years. According to the FCC, “the goal of this new law is to let anyone enter any communications business — to let any communications business compete in any market against any other.” The act set the groundwork for the regulation of media transmission in the United States, and was later amended to include the first form of internet regulation. These amendments are the reason we enjoy the freely accessible information afforded to us by the internet today.  Along with its revisions and additions, this act classifies the provision of Internet Service under “Title II,” which imposes strict regulations preventing Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from limiting access to any website. 

   The rationale for these restrictions, at their core, can be compared to the experience of subscription-based streaming sites. Some people prefer Hulu, and some people prefer Netflix. Many shows are available on each platform; however, there are a large number of features which are exclusive to one or the other. Let’s say you could only choose one, which is the situation many people face due to financial constraints. There are many factors to consider in making this decision, such as stream quality, subscription price, and advertising. However, the most important factor for the average subscriber is which shows are offered on each platform. This is by far the defining characteristic of each site, just as exclusive content has ruled the decision on which video game console consumers choose.

    Here’s the problem: What happens if the “Restore Internet Freedom Act” passes? Let’s take the same example and apply it to the internet. What if, when choosing between ISPs, you could pay less money for access to a certain pool of sites, or choose to pay more money for a much larger pool of sites — or what if certain sites were exclusive to one ISP, while other sites were only available to a different ISP. Imagine a world where you had to have two separate internet subscriptions to use both Instagram and Twitter. It would be very inconvenient, but it’s not the end of the world for most people. Here’s where the world ends: if news sites such as NBC and CNN were only available through different ISPs? 

       This represents a massive problem, as the free access to information afforded to us by the current state of the internet contends for the top spot on the “reasons we are where we are today” list right up there with the Bill of Rights and regulated capitalism. The latest presidential election has brought about an avalanche of dialogue regarding the question, “what is real and fake news?” At this point, the best answer we have to that question is, “it all kinds of sucks, but get multiple sources!”

    If Americans’ access to news outlets was limited by their income — which it would be if this proposal were to pass — they would suffer a very real blow to their ability to access enough information to form a well-rounded understanding of current events. The forces behind this change are already in motion. It’s up to us to make sure that, when someone is uninformed, that it is entirely their own fault and not that of a flawed policy. We must fight for our right to the free flow of information as if it is just that — our right.

"An educated, enlgihtened, and informed population is one of the surest ways of promoting the health of democracy" — Nelson Mandela