Net neutrality has been a hot-button issue for several years now, but what exactly does it mean? Should governments be stepping in and regulating this new digital space, or do we let the free market take care of it? Here is our primer on this contentious issue, presenting the arguments for and against.
What is Net Neutrality?
In a nutshell, net neutrality is the idea that all internet traffic should be treated equally by internet service providers. This means that an ISP should not have the ability to throttle or prioritize certain packets of information for whatever reason. Net neutrality proposes that ISPs should not be able to create multiple tiers of accessibility and all services, be it Netflix or a small streaming upstart, should have the same prioritization when sending data through a given network.
Who is for Net Neutrality?
On first glance it is fair to assume that net neutrality is a no-brainer. Of course the internet should be open and accessible to all. Proponents arguing in favor of net neutrality are widespread, from major technology companies such as Amazon and Microsoft to civil rights groups such as the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Supporters of net neutrality argue that internet service providers should not be allowed to have the ability to throttle certain services over others. The danger is that this could allow larger, more powerful entities to dominate the marketplace by paying the internet providers for faster speeds, while other smaller, less resourced competitors could languish with slower speeds.
Without net neutrality regulations, it is argued that ISPs could have too much power in controlling access to content that better serves their business interests. This could result in some websites getting throttled because they report information critical of certain corporations, or deals being struck between ISPs and companies that may directly or indirectly result in the monopolizing of markets.
The inventor of the world wide web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, summed up the issue in an open letter in 2015: "The Web evolved into a powerful and ubiquitous platform because I was able to build it on an open network that treated all packets of information equally. This principle of net neutrality has kept the Internet a free and open space since its inception."
At this point you may be thinking, what possible arguments could anyone have against net neutrality?
Who is against Net Neutrality?
As with many things, the issue of net neutrality is much more complicated than it seems, and those against regulation argue that ISPs need to have the ability to treat different types of internet traffic unequally in order to maintain the best possible service.
While it's a nice idealistic notion that all packets of information traveling through the internet be treated equally, it also can be noted that not all internet traffic is the same.
Harsha Madhyastha, a computer scientist from the University of Michigan argues that limiting the ability of ISPs to control the flow of information through their networks could result in a dysfunctional system,
"Now consider two users whose internet traffic goes through the congested link. If one user is streaming video and another is backing up data to the cloud, should both of them have their data slowed down? Or would users' collective experience be best if those watching videos were given priority? That would mean slightly slowing down the data backup, freeing up bandwidth to minimize video delays and keep the picture quality high."
Another argument against net neutrality posits the potential problems with government overreach complicating and stifling the free market with messy regulations. Free market advocates claim that consumers will decide what services they want. So for example, if an ISP throttles Netflix because it isn't paying enough for the so-called "fast lane" then consumers who want that service will simply move to another provider.
Not only that, but freeing up ISPs to be able to charge more for those services that hog more bandwidth could allow ISPs new revenue sources that in turn permit greater investment in building faster networks. This argument claims that net neutrality actually stifles innovation and growth by limiting the ability for markets and infrastructures to develop.
So where are we right now?
Net neutrality rules have been debated for over a decade and Barack Obama's presidency did its utmost to put several pro-net neutrality policies into effect. After several false starts the Obama administration managed to implement new FCC net neutrality rules in 2015.
The regulations essentially boiled down to setting rules governing the three main principles underpinning net neutrality: No broadband provider can block lawful content, no broadband provider can throttle specific content or services, and no broadband provider can accept fees from a service for prioritized speeds.
These regulations immediately provoked a legal battle with internet providers who claimed the FCC was overreaching, but by mid-2016 a Court of Appeals upheld the FCC regulations that are now currently in effect.
The legal battle is not over though, as we will most likely see this issue rising up the chain to the US Supreme Court. "We have always expected this issue to be decided by the Supreme Court and we look forward to participating in that appeal," said Senior Executive Vice President and General Counsel for AT&T, David McAtee II, in 2016.
Policies change with administrations though, and the future looks to hold dramatic shifts in US government's approach to net neutrality. President Trump's newly appointed FCC chairman Ajit Pai has been an outspoken critic of Obama's net neutrality rules. "We need to fire up the weed whacker and remove those rules that are holding back investment, innovation, and job creation," said Pai in December 2016.
It is unclear whether the current net neutrality regulations will be overturned or whether, under Pai's watch, the FCC will simply decline to enforce them. In a press conference after Pai's first FCC meeting as Chairman he refused to be drawn on the FCC's future actions regarding the net neutrality regulations saying, "I'm not going to comment on what steps we may or may not take on enforcement."
While no one knows what exactly what the future holds for net neutrality, we can be sure that the vigorous debate around this issue is set to continue for quite some time.