What’s Left, Being Right: Net Neutrality Debate

What’s Left

Alex Tiktinsky, Class of 2016

In order to understand why something is worth protecting, we need to start by understanding what it is. The term “network neutrality” was coined in 2003 by Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu to describe the idea that all data delivered via the internet is treated equally by Internet service providers (ISPs). In practice, net neutrality ensures that any fixed quantity of content gets from its origin to our screens at the same rate, no matter where it originates. It is essential to the open nature of our internet, as it ensures that all content has an equal right to bandwidth.

The challenge? Major ISPs such as Comcast, Time Warner and Verizon have lobbied aggressively for changes to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations that would allow them to charge some companies a premium to put their data in a “fast lane,” delivering it to internet users more quickly than the data of other websites. In January, a federal court struck down the FCC’s previous net neutrality rules as unenforceable on the grounds that broadband’s classification as an “information service” rather than a “telecommunications service” limited their legal capacity to prevent violations of net neutrality. Rather than change this classification, the FCC has since proposed problematic new rules that would allow ISPs to create fast lanes, albeit in a limited fashion.

Let’s talk about why this is a bad idea. Because bandwidth is finite, this speed boost for a few paying companies would necessarily come at the expense of small online businesses and individual users, slowing the functionality of their webpages and suppressing their capacity to share products, ideas and opinions. Because large entities like Google, Amazon, Netflix and Facebook will have the purchasing power to buy the equivalent of a line-cutting pass, Internet users will see their ready access to information constrained by networks of highest bidders. Scholars conducting research on academic databases will see the rate at which they can consume information reduced, and start-up e-businesses will be hard-pressed to bring their ideas to online consumers when their webpages take twice as long to load as those of their larger competition. Even big companies will be held hostage by ISPs, forced to pay virtual protection fees to keep their content at the front of the line. If the FCC follows through with its proposed rule changes, it will deal a sharp blow to free expression, free enterprise and free access to information.

Fortunately, there is a simple solution: the FCC can and should reclassify broadband internet service as a telecommunications service under the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which would make it a common carrier utility under Title II of the Telecommunications Act of 1934. This would empower the commission to take firm action to put a stop to any violations of net neutrality, protecting consumers and producers of information alike.

Those who oppose this change argue that making the internet a public utility will stifle innovation, “freezing” progress in the bandwidth industry. But if this were true, download speeds in the US wouldn’t be lagging behind those in countries in which equal internet service is more tightly protected. In South Korea, a country with a significantly stricter-regulated broadband market, internet users enjoy download speeds nearly double those of the U.S. Indeed in 2014, average American download speeds rank 25th in the world, behind countries like Estonia and Lithuania. Lack of regulation stifles innovation in the monopoly-dominated broadband service market: mega-companies unchecked by a highly competitive market or government regulation are disinclined to improve the status quo unless they’re subjected to one of those two forces.

The other argument made by opponents of net neutrality, that content prioritization deals benefit consumers, is similarly problematic. Let’s examine this claim through the case study of Netflix, an on-demand streaming content provider with over 50 million subscribers. Since Netflix has signed a series of interconnection deals with major ISPs, its movies and TV shows have begun streaming faster. But this is more the result of cartel strong-arming by big telecom than of proactive market capitalization on the part of the content provider. Reed Hastings, Netflix co-founder and CEO, lamented the inadequacy of current FCC net neutrality standards in a March 2014 blog post, writing that: “This weak net neutrality [proposed by the FCC] isn’t enough to protect an open, competitive internet; a stronger form of net neutrality is required.” On the topic of Netflix’s interconnection deals with ISPs, Hastings observed, “[i]f this kind of leverage is effective against Netflix, which is pretty large, imagine the plight of smaller services today and in the future.”

We should not need to face the possibility of an internet limited by the interests of ISPs. In the interest of freedom of information and capitalistic free enterprise, internet users should push the FCC to reclassify broadband service as a utility. Just as we deserve the equal right to access information, our content deserves the equal right to access bandwidth. Let’s protect this by keeping the net neutral.

Being Right

Brian Challenger, Class of 2017

In the last few weeks, the Internet and general public have been bombarded with news of the scary Internet “fast lanes.” Websites like jointhefastlane.com paint the picture of a curated, pay-to-play version of the Internet. People have risen up in the thousands to complain about this – and rightly so – demanding net neutrality and even calling for the re-classification of the Internet as a public utility. 

So what is net neutrality? Net neutrality is a term that was coined in 2003 by Tim Wu to describe a version of the Internet where all data transmitted over the Internet is required by law to be treated the same by Internet Service Providers (ISPs). People in favor of net neutrality generally have two demands: ban fast lanes and reclassify the Internet as a public utility.

So let’s tackle these ideas one by one. People have reacted very strongly against the idea of a curated version of the Internet. The problem is no one is actually proposing it. Fast lanes have actually been used for years and are responsible for making sure your Netflix movie doesn’t take a million years to load. The problem with treating all data the same is that not all data is the same. Some content – like high definition movies, is time-sensitive and takes priority over less time-sensitive content such as email. So Netflix pays ISPs to host their servers so videos are loaded smoothly. This is different than Google’s fast lane, which created “peering arrangements” with local ISPs to send them data directly – which allows features like Google Instant. These fast lanes have actually saved the Internet by letting people come up with clever ways to reroute traffic so that the whole web doesn’t come to a screeching halt. This kind of innovation, in which companies compete with different traffic, has made the Internet more usable for everyone. Banning fast lanes would be the first nail in the coffin of Internet innovation. Fast lanes haven’t stopped small companies from competing with big companies, and they haven’t turned the Internet into a tiered service where only the biggest companies get their content delivered quickly. By allowing Internet traffic to be diverted, they have actually allowed these companies to thrive. Would you waste your time on Vimeo if it took 30 minutes for every 

three-minute video to load? I wouldn’t.

 So fast lanes are actually a very good thing that saved the Internet, and no one’s actually arguing for a tiered Internet. But what about reclassifying the Internet as a public utility, what would that actually mean? There is no way to know for sure because regulators haven’t said what they would do if the Internet actually was reclassified – one thing they have said is that they probably wouldn’t ban fast lanes anyway. If the Internet gets reclassified that gives the government the responsibility of setting prices, approving service changes of any kind and ensuring equal access among all competitors. But what would that look like in practice? If Netflix came up with a new way to deliver faster video, it wouldn’t be up to consumers or ISPs to decide whether or not it is a good technology; it would be up to federal regulators instead. Theoretically, regulators could be very open to innovation, but a look at their track record makes me skeptical. Cable is regulated as a utility, and when was the last time anyone had a pleasant experience with a cable company? Additionally, how different does cable look now from 30 years ago?  

Any innovation in that sector has come from outside companies, like Direct TV, finding new ways to deliver content. What about our railroads or water infrastructure or power grids? High-speed rail and magnetic rail have both been around for years, yet they barely exist in the United States. By most measures, the California high-speed rail project has been a disaster. In fact, public infrastructure in the United States is so bad that the American Society of Civil Engineers regularly gives it a D+. The Internet is the way it is because competing technologies have always battled it out and let consumers choose which one they preferred. Even the Internet itself as a way of connecting people had competition: a network called Minitel in France. It still had 10 million users in 2009, but eventually consumers decided it wasn’t useful and it was shuttered. Making the Internet a public utility would freeze it in time. Maybe in 20 years it will look completely different from what it is today, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Let’s let the Internet evolve on its own.