On Nov. 22, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai, released a proposal to kill net neutrality in the United States — and the public released an outcry of epic proportions.
The United States’ Internet economy has long been the envy of the world because it is open — meaning government and regulatory agencies do not interfere with how information is disseminated and, more importantly, don’t allow Internet service providers, or ISPs, the power to interfere with what information is disseminated.
In a nutshell, net neutrality is the feature of our FCC rules and regulations that gives the agency the authority to treat ISPs as monopolies, or “common carriers,” and keeps them from exerting control over the information flowing through their data connections to the end users, i.e., consumers, businesses and basically anyone with an Internet connection. This means Internet users in our country can participate in an online world without fear that what they say, what they sell, who they speak to and what they read will be interrupted, slowed or altogether removed because someone in an authority position deems it inappropriate.
Net neutrality is the definition of Internet freedom. It’s the mark of a totally free enterprise, which you’d think someone with Pai’s political leanings would be all for.
Free enterprise is jeopardized
Under the current protections net neutrality affords, small and startup businesses — especially those that may disrupt current markets with innovative ideas (think Netflix upending Blockbuster by changing the way we access movies and TV shows) — stand a chance against giant corporations who have supposedly cornered the market. Creative and innovative products and services have an equal chance of reaching wider markets as much as their corporate competitors. Without net neutrality, ISPs are the gatekeepers who deem whether or not an idea is worthy of dissemination. If they think not, a small businessowner’s site won’t load quickly or won’t load at all, which will essentially silence the business.
For conservatives who tout government regulation as the antithesis of capitalism, they’re going out of their way to make sure that free market swallows the small startup and that corporate sharks maintain their rule of the waters. That’s not capitalism, that’s corporate cronyism, and it’s yet another way the middle class, which depends on small businesses staying in business through online enterprise, will bear the brunt of this decision.
ISPs spent millions of dollars and decades on lawsuits fighting against net neutrality and their “common carriers” designation. Companies like Netflix and YouTube fought the ISPs so they didn’t have to pay premium rates to send large amounts of downstream data to their end users. In the end, consumers win; we don’t pay excessive fees for our Internet habits, and we can trust all corners of the Internet are available to us if we choose.
Freedom of speech and the press are in danger
With that said, an open Internet is more than commerce. We rely on news websites to hold our authority figures accountable. If what our newspapers report depends on ISPs approving of their message, and those ISPs are in any way influenced by members of government, what we depend on to be truthful and unbiased will no longer be so. The Internet has long been the place where people go to tell the truth, where citizen journalists have made as much of a splash as time-honored newspapers like The New York Times. If that open conduit to the public is gated and monitored, how can we know what we’re reading and relying on as neutral information is indeed the truth?
But major journalistic enterprises are not the only ones potentially silenced. The mainstream media has a long and precarious history of misrepresenting minority groups at best, and harming them at worst. The Black Lives Matter movement is one such group that media outlets, notoriously lacking in diverse ownership, have stereotyped and criminalized. The LGBT community also fights to have a voice on the Internet. Would the marriage-equality momentum that carried us all the way to the Supreme Court and resulted in equal marriage for all have happened if we hadn’t had a platform to change the direction of the conversation in society? For any group with a cause, the possibility of censorship could inhibit movement from the widespread coverage needed to inform the public of the injustices against which its members are fighting.
So, what can we do?
I wish there was more that we could do. Even during the time period where the FCC asked for statements from the public at large, “the powers that be” used the very thing we fear — online manipulation — to help bring about the end of net neutrality. While the FCC received an overwhelming amount of responses that support it doing away with net neutrality, about 1.2-million responses were not submitted by individual citizens. In fact, a data-analytics company found that only 17 percent of the comments submitted to the FCC on net neutrality were written by individuals — and 95 percent of those were in favor of net neutrality. The rest of the comments were submitted in bulk containing the exact same statement lamenting net neutrality and President Obama for instituting it. More than 1-million comments in July claimed to have a pornhub.com email address.
While net neutrality is an uphill battle, it is important that you make your voice and opinion known by writing to your state representatives and Congress members. Ending net neutrality defies the will of millions of Americans, and we need to let those in office know that an open Internet is the only free Internet. Giving this much power to a few conglomerates does constitute a monopoly — and one that must be regulated.