The internet is an amazing place. Billions of people, connected by computers, smartphones, and other devices—yes, even some ridiculous microwaves—can access a Pandora’s box of data, information, and collaborative power. There’s no question that the internet can be used for nefarious purposes—indeed, the recent Heartbleed exploit of SSL-encrypted sites shows this—but despite its detriments, the interconnectivity and potential it provides greatly outweigh the possible negatives. It has spawned multi-billion dollar corporations, aided in the increased productivity marked of the 21st century, and even aided in the removal of numerous tyrannical governments. Its decentralized nature lends itself a truly democratic, capitalistic platform, and it provides a world’s wealth of information at your fingertips.
In 2011, Republican Representative Lamar Smith proposed an amendment that would severely damage the internet’s ability to exist as it was. The Stop Online Piracy Act, or House Resolution 3261, was a law that attempted to protect intellectual property by imposing harsh restrictions against websites that are suspected to harbor such content, regardless of the fact that a large amount of content on the internet exists in numerous legal gray areas or the potential for abuse through targeted persecution. Fortunately, SOPA was struck down through the concentrated efforts of millions of users across the United States and the aid of a number of major websites, most notably, Google, Reddit, and Wikipedia. Since then, there have been a few attempts to change the internet for the benefit of the few, but there have not been any other major threats to its current existence until today.
I’m not here to talk about the internet’s formation, or its current existence, or its history, though. I’m here to talk about securing a future for it—a future of a free and open net, unencumbered by governmental regulation and unshackled by those who wish to exploit its foundations for their own personal profit. In order to keep it fair and in order to keep costs nominalized, the internet must be able to be accessed evenly and fairly across its breadth, without regard for the site, its purpose, or its ownership, at the same speed and cost as the rest of the internet. The Federal Communications Committee under former Chairman Julius Genachowski has historically defended net neutrality, as this principle has been called, but after he was replaced by former cable company lobbyist Tom Wheeler in late 2013, that tune has since changed.
Genachowski’s FCC provided a much broader defense of net neutrality: a report from 2010 stated that “broadband providers should not pick winners and losers” on the web. However, on May 15, 2014, Wheeler will present a new set of changes in opposition to net neutrality that will allow precisely that—internet service providers will be permitted to favor certain traffic under “commercially reasonable” arrangements. Wheeler has stated that he believes including a stipulation that unreasonable deals that “harm the internet” will not be enacted will be protection enough; however, many parties, including his predecessor as FCC chairman, disagree.
Despite assurances to the contrary, ostensible impingements on so-called net neutrality have already occurred. Under Wheeler’s FCC, Comcast, the nation’s largest cable and broadband provider, began to charge streaming video site Netflix a fee to access faster and more stable connections to their customers. While this is not strictly a net neutrality issue, it sets a troubling precedent that companies may have to pay to have better access to consumers, and these costs may be later passed onto consumers. Additionally, slower internet speeds for companies or sites that refuse or are unable to pay for faster connections may cripple the creation of new, smaller sites that would otherwise grow exponentially. The possibility exists that, combined with future net neutrality breaches and the lack of competition in the internet service provider market, costs to access certain websites or services may increase and innovation in the online arena may be stifled.
The timing of this proposed shift in legislation comes at a time when another possible threat to net neutrality is coming to a vote at the FCC. In February, Comcast and Time Warner Cable agreed to a $45 billion merger which would combine the two telecom powerhouses into a single entity controlling access to 30 million cable and internet subscribers—over two-thirds of the market and nearly 40 percent of broadband customers. The two companies do not overlap in their customer base due to current legislation, but the massive consumer base provided would reduce the ability of smaller companies to enter markets and would afford the new telecom giant a larger amount of leverage in Washington.
These revelations are troubling, to say the least. Even as the European Union proposes legislation to promote net neutrality and limit the power of telecoms, the United States seems to have regressed in that respect. Internet access is an undeniable part of life as we know it now, so much so that the United Nations declared internet access a human right in May 2011. Net neutrality is a critical part of the continued existence of the internet as it currently is—as a free and open forum for discussion, a place to go for information, and as a place to find entertainment and amusement.
I’m sure that many of you rely on the internet in your day-to-day activities, and appreciate its merits. I urge you to write to the FCC, your congressional representatives, and any other legislative employees in support of net neutrality. The FCC has created an email address at firstname.lastname@example.org to hear those who want their voices heard.
In addition, I urge you to spread the word—most other people don’t know what net neutrality even is, let alone current legislation regarding it in the works. Above all, I urge you to not be complacent. There are those who seek to use the internet for their own purposes, or to control or diminish it from what it is. Don’t let them take over one of the last bastions of freedom that exist in the world today. Instead, fight for a free and open internet, so that people around the world can discover and use the internet to help advance themselves and their peers, regardless if it’s for writing a 50-page term paper, researching cures for cancer, or simply watching cat videos, for future generations to come.