Are you confused about Net Neutrality? Who isn’t? Some people argue it is necessary for continued innovation on the Internet, and point to Comcast’s bandwidth metering as a sign of things to come. Others claim that it is unnecessary regulation that will create unintended consequences in its wake. Opposing Views, the debate site that pits experts against each other to argue the pros and cons of the big questions of the day (read our launch review), last night put up a page on Net Neutrality. The page lays out the arguments pro and con for Net Neutrality, and then links to fuller arguments.
Marshaling the arguments for Net Neutrality are the Save The Internet Coalition, the Open Internet Coalition, and Public Knowledge. (It’s a freedom of speech issue, the ISPs are quasi-monopolies that cannot be trusted, innovation on the Web is at stake). Arguing against are the Cato Institute and Hands Off The Internet (it’s a technical issue best left to engineers, the cost of Net Neutrality will be passed onto consumers, regulation will backfire). Readers are then encouraged to vote on who is winning the argument, an add their own points of view, which can be elevated to the main discussion page.
Here’s a sample of some of the back-and-forth. The Open Internet Coalition argues that it is a fundamental principle:
Too often, the discussion of why we need to protect the open Internet degenerates into a stale debate about regulation versus the free market. In fact, it’s impossible for innovation to continue apace without some basic rules of the road to protect that innovation.
The open Internet was the principle leading the development of the Internet as the first open global communications network. And it helped drive the development of a host of Internet applications like Facebook, YouTube, and Skype. There would have been no motivation for the developers of these applications to have expended time, effort, and in some cases, their own financial security, in pursuit of their vision if they weren’t guaranteed their inventions would have been able to work over any Internet connection.
The Cato Institute warns of the difficulty of enforcing fuzzy concepts:
it’s important to remember that network neutrality is fundamentally a technical principle. Like any technical principle, it is fuzzy at the edges.
. . . Leading network neutrality proposals contain numerous ambiguities that would create uncertainty for everyone in the Internet industry. Here’s just one example: the most prominent network neutrality proposal of the 2006 congressional session, known as Snowe-Dorgan, defined a “broadband service provider” as “a person or entity that controls, operates, or resells and controls any facility used to provide broadband service to the public, whether provided for a fee or for free.” Does this mean that the owner of a coffee shop with a WiFi connection would be subject to FCC regulation of its firewall configuration? One would hope not, but that’s what the language seems to suggest. The same point can be made with respect to hotels, Internet cafes, airports, and even individuals who choose to make their home WiFi connection available to their neighbors.
Where do you stand on Net Neutrality? Go debate.
Who should get to control what information is flowing over the lines of the internet? That is the core of the debate around the pros and cons of net neutrality. On one side of the equation, the idea of being able to enjoy free speech, be involved in innovative processes, and not have unreasonable limits placed on one’s internet usage is an attractive reason to support net neutrality.
Without net neutrality, those who provide services to consumers so they can access the internet would have more control. They could put severe caps on internet use, potentially limit individual subscribers who are critical of them, or charge enormous fees for services so that internet access is available to only a wealthy few.
The pros and cons of net neutrality often stir a passionate debate. Here are some of the other key points to think about.
What Are the Pros of Net Neutrality?
1. It creates an equal playing field.
With net neutrality in place, internet service providers have little say on what passes through the mechanisms that are used by customers to access the internet. There are controls in place for illegal activities, but companies like Comcast or AT&T wouldn’t be able to change how a customer’s data is delivered to them. This means an ISP under net neutrality cannot block access, change services, or alter the flow of data simply because there is something that goes on which they don’t like.
2. It protects innovation.
Although there are companies which have made billions of dollars because of their access to the internet, they were able to get started on the same footing. Innovation is protected with the internet remains neutral. Big companies still have the same access as SMBs or freelancers and this allows everyone to earn a comfortable living or offer information in a way that best suits them.
3. It provides everyone with a freedom of expression.
Blogs, services, businesses, and any website that can operate legally is able to do so and be available because of net neutrality. There isn’t any censorship available as long as the content being offered meets legal obligations. If illegal content is discovered, it can be immediately reported to law enforcement officials. Without this freedom of expression, it could become easier for illegal content, such as child pornography, to become more available. If a small ISP blocked access to all and approved of such a thing, it could hamper keeping our communities safe.
4. Illegal activities are still monitored.
Questionable content can be found on the internet if you’re willing to look for it – and sometimes even when you’re not looking for it. The goal of net neutrality is to provide every person with an experience that is optimal. This means illegal activities are still prevented, including illegal file sharing, due to the fact that each ISP would be treated as a regulated common carrier.
5. It would classify internet service providers as a utility provider.
Public utilities have a role to play in our lives. They provide services that we use every day to maintain our quality of life. It could be argued that the internet is just as essential to that lifestyle as having water or sewer access. Utilities provide everyone with the services they need unless a customer refuses to pay for them. It doesn’t matter how good their credit happens to be, how much money they have, or what kind of business they run.
What Are the Cons of Net Neutrality?
1. Enormous amounts of data are consumed without compensation.
When the internet was first brought to the public, the idea of having a streaming service was unfathomable to many. In the 1990s, internet users had a good time being online in AOL chat rooms or waiting 20 minutes for a cool website to load. Today, there are real-time video calls. Companies like Netflix providing legal streaming. There is illegal streaming as well. These services are provided for free on the infrastructure of the internet service provider.
2. Reduced income from internet uses limits infrastructure improvements.
There are certain businesses and high-use individuals who consume large amounts of bandwidth every month. If net neutrality was removed, these high-level consumers would be asked to pay more for what they consume. This added income could then be used to upgrade the infrastructure of each internet service provider, making it possible for advanced fiber networks to be installed in many communities.
3. Priorities could be assigned by the ISP.
Let’s take Comcast as an example here. There are numerous online streaming services that offer live TV today: Hulu, PlayStation Vue, and Sling by Dish Network are just three examples. If a customer must choose Comcast as their ISP, then these streaming services could be given a lower priority because they are rival organizations. Comcast could choose to offer the highest speeds to the networks and services it owns and slow down the signals provided by the competition. This would effectively limit consumer choice.
4. Questionable content thrives in net neutrality.
Content that some may find to be offensive is readily available to anyone because of net neutrality. This includes items that may be critical of personal or religious beliefs, legal pornography, graphic videos, and items that are not suitable for children. There are tools that can help people and families block this content, but an argument could be made that net neutrality could “filter” it out before it reaches the consumer.
5. Free internet access would likely go away.
When the internet becomes a place where profitability is the primary concern, the idea of providing free internet access to those who cannot afford it goes away. Providers could charge whatever they wanted and restrict access to whomever they please. This could lead to demographic discrimination, socioeconomic discrimination, or prioritize content to the wealthiest who are willing to pay high prices for the fastest data streams.
6. Charging companies more just means services will cost more.
Some advocates of stopping net neutrality suggest that an ISP could charge a company who consumes or provides a lot of content more and this could lead to free access to certain sites. If Comcast were to charge Netflix more, it could provide access to Facebook to consumers without a contract. The only problem with this idea is that the companies will pass those charges along to their customers. If the cost of access doubles for Netflix, that monthly subscription plan would likely go from $9.99 to $19.98.
7. More regulations would create slower access.
Let’s use the US Government as an example here. When the government was originally created in the 18th century, the goal was to create an entity that was inefficient and slow. The founders of the US felt that the greatest danger to the people of their new country was having a government in place that could move too fast. By slowing everything down, people could protect themselves. If net neutrality is supervised by the government, this will be the result. Everything is equally slow.
8. Public utilities have plenty of problems that many just overlook.
Many utilities face a slowing consumer base, so they raise prices to compensate. That eventually means everyone pays more for the same service without any innovation.
The pros and cons of net neutrality will continue to be debated, especially in terms of cost and access. When each key point is carefully considered and debated, together we can come up with a reasonable solution that will benefit all of us.