By Don Lim
The battle for a free and open internet continues to rage on. In 2011, the bill Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) threatened freedom of speech and innovation of the internet, including increased censorship. Senator John McCain’s Internet Freedom Act (IFA) also sought greater government regulation of the internet. Public protests occurred and many internet giants, such as Wikipedia and Google, fought against SOPA and IFA, and in the end, the bills were defeated. Many of the same people like Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Nancy Pelosi, and companies against these bills, like Mozilla and Twitter, are today in favor of net neutrality laws.
The newest conflict is over Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, which reclassifies the internet into government regulation. This hurts a free and open internet. Title II holds back innovation and harms startup internet service providers (ISPs).
Both the supporters and opponents of net neutrality want the same thing: better and easier internet access. The question is whether heavy-handed regulation is the solution or the problem. One of the main arguments for net neutrality regulation is that it stops ISPs from creating internet “fast lanes,” which means consumers and companies—like Facebook or Amazon—cannot pay ISPs for faster and better service for their websites. Proponents further argue this would lead to an unfair advantage for wealthy consumers and companies. Not only is this claim unsupported, the nightmare scenarios being drummed up spread misinformation and false fears.
In fact, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai has called these claims bunk. From the 1990s up until 2015, before Title II came into effect, we did not see ISPs offer faster service for specific sites. With the internet rallying fervently for net neutrality, we should ask ourselves if the internet before 2015 was much different than today.
Even if fast lanes were purchasable, that would not necessarily be a bad thing. Not all internet users use every service equally. For example, Netflix now constitutes over 35 percent of all internet traffic. About half of American internet users watch Netflix. Streaming high-quality content requires higher broadband speeds. For consumers who engage in activities that require fast broadband and low latency—like video streaming, playing online video games, or large file sharing—they may wish to purchase a service that offers such benefits. We must not forget the other side: Title II does not simply prohibit ISPs from selling faster service; it also prohibits consumers who would be happy and willing to pay for what they want. Consumers can pay more for a better processor on their phones. They can also pay more for a more fuel-efficient car—or one with better horsepower. Consumers, then, should also be allowed to pay more for better internet service.
Commentators, such as writer Alex Hern at The Guardian, are also worried about the monopoly power of the major ISPs. They claim smaller ISPs will not be able to compete with AT&T and Comcast. Nevertheless, net neutrality does not help these small ISPs. One of the reasons why smaller ISPs have difficulty growing is because of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Under this act, the services of telecom, cable, wireless, and broadcasting are regulated under different legal standards, making it much more difficult to comply, since many of these companies provide bundle services.
Another problem with the Telecom Act is the flawed design of “forced access” mandates. In order to help smaller carriers get started on the market, the FCC created rules allowing new carriers to lease infrastructure from existing carriers at a very low rate. However, rather than creating new infrastructure, the new rivals come to rely on the existing carriers, crippling any true competition that may have arisen.
But there’s also a censorship claim made by net neutrality advocates, even though there were no instances during the lifetime of the internet where ISPs censored websites arbitrarily. Many fear that without net neutrality, ISPs will start censoring their startup rivals and political legislation they don’t agree with. Yet companies do not voluntarily alienate their customers and lose business without good reason. Moreover, the Streisand effect—where attempts to hide information backfire and result in wider publicity—will result in public outcry. If any ISPs censored such information, the media firestorm will rightly result in public backlash, a vast reduction in business, and termination of the employees involved.
After the near unanimous disapproval over SOPA and IFA, it is paradoxical that people would be against government regulation of the internet, but then favor regulation by the FCC. Title II attempts to fix nonexistent problems and does not solve the problems that do exist. Market forces and public outcry are much more effective at determining how companies behave than heavy-handed and shortsighted regulations. The public should be wary of new legislation when far too many previous legislation has become a hindrance rather than a boon.
Don Lim is a Young Voice Advocate who resides in Prague. He is a graduate of the University of Michigan and is currently attending the CEVRO Institute for a Master in International Politics.