The other side of net neutrality


Ashu Ebot-Tabi, Reporter

Ever since the December vote to kill net neutrality rules, vocal outcry has emerged nationwide. From the American Civil Liberties Union to Battle for The Net, it seems the whole of the American people want to voice their defense of the principle. However, it seems as if nobody wants to listen to the cases against the principle. While Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman and director Ajit Pai received heavy criticism for his decision to overturn the rules, does that mean his motives for repealing the net neutrality rules hold no justification? Well, no.  

One criticism of the repeal claimed it could significantly impact the wallets of spenders. A US News report claimed that under the repeal, popular forms of social media, like Twitter and Snapchat could cost up to $10.99 a month.  However, possible economic benefits would result from the repeal. One common complaint activists mentioned prior to and after the vote noted that companies like Comcast and AT&T could possess complete control over Internet speeds and quality, preventing a fair and equal distribution thereof. An article published by Quartz featured an interview with economist Michael Katz, where he expressed his thoughts regarding net neutrality. He believes that families with lower incomes would profit most from the repeal, claiming “the basic low-cost internet option would entice more households to sign up, and that in turn would be a win for both Internet providers and content makers.”

The claim that Internet Service Providers (ISP) can selectively decide which companies can choose what level of Internet speed does hold merit. However, an overabundance of government regulation would not serve the Internet well either. Like everything that is regulated, Internet access would still remain available, just in limited amounts. So if more net neutrality rules end up authorized, Internet regulation would increase alongside it. A lessening of net neutrality would restore genuine freedom of the Internet.

The same article also explains that the reason Katz opposes net neutrality stems from potential benefits from what he calls “paid prioritization,” or the ability of an ISP to charge companies for faster speeds.

Among the most common worries of net neutrality, proponents mention the possibility of Internet providers gaining a monopoly over other ISPs. Comcast-level companies effectively eliminate all possible competition, and consequently need regulations placed upon them. However, this logic contains a notable flaw: the growth of a company does not always reduce competition; in fact, instances exist that show companies actively push back against the unfair growth of their rivals.

In September of 2016, ARS Technica published a piece discussing how AT&T sued the city of Nashville to prevent Google from gaining too much influence. According to the company, the attempt of Google Fiber to adjust utility poles for their own economic gains “violates AT&T’s 58-year-old pole attachment contract with Nashville.” They noted that their “aerial fiber facilities…provide high-capacity switched Ethernet services to…police and fire stations, and to wireless carriers that use the fiber to carry wireless traffic to and from their cell towers.” AT&T did not complain about a local business, but rather a large scale ISP company with an actual monopoly over search engines. They saw a monopoly try to unfairly expand their growth, and faced legal action as a result. In fact, ARS Technica recently published a piece which detailed the legal victory of AT&T and Comcast.

The topic of free speech and First Amendment rights tends to come up as the most prevalent reason used in the defense of net neutrality, and one that does makes sense. However, while the Internet most certainly serves as the most prevalent forum for the spread of ideas in the 21st century, other settings do exist. College campuses, news outlets, and even the dinner table can provide just as sufficient a forum, if not better in select cases, than the Internet itself, mainly regarding cases of censorship. For example, the Mary Sue, a website which serves as “the premier destination for entertainment geeks, female or otherwise,” prides themselves on the idea of diversity and free thought. However, their comment policy comes off as markedly less inclusive, mainly their strict policy against “the use of the word feminazi or a comments which denigrates women, feminism or feminists.”

This shows an example of an independent website partaking in censorship, not a national government, a precedent which does exist. In early 2011, after Egypt and their involvement in the Tunisian Revolution ended up revealed, the Egyptian government blocked internet access in an effort to silence dissenters. Rather than preventing opposition groups from gaining power, it only lead to, as the BBC reported, a call for “literally millions to take control of the streets in an epic ‘Day of Rage.;” The government trying to censor the political views of those not aligned with the ruling party sounds fairly similar to First Amendment censorship.

Despite the advantages of a free Internet, the flaws of net neutrality simply cannot be ignored. The logic used in its defense possesses flaws. Potential economic benefits like standardized packages could arise from its repeal. The potential for companies to hold monopolies, while entirely real, does not mean all competition will cease. And independent websites, as well as national governments, possess the capability to infringe upon the freedom of thought and speech.

Regardless of how one feels, this topic will not fade out of the public memory anytime soon. Recently, California passed a bill which made the principle a statewide requirement. Before that, Montana Governor Steve Bullock signed an executive order requiring ISPs to follow those principles. Even Burger King recently parodied the vote in an advertisement on their Twitter page. And while good intentions certainly motivated these actions, intentions rarely correspond to action. If the Day of Rage showed anything, it showed that if the Internet serves as such a useful tool for socio-political change, then a lack of regulation serves the best interest of all.

*This article does not mean to convince readers of a lack of value to a free Internet; rather, this article simply aims to look at an unpopular perspective and inform others of the potential benefits that could come from the repeal. Again, activists should feel no shame supporting net neutrality, but it bears repeating: this piece simply explains the views of net neutrality opponents.