Internet Content Can Now Be Controlled by Corporations
Users may find access to content on the Internet restricted or censured, and content providers may be hindered in the wake of recent attacks on net neutrality. Over the last few years, the phrase “net neutrality” has risen to the forefront of Internet legal discourse, but legislation was not made to remove its protection until January, when the Supreme Court ruled that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) lacked the legal authority to continue its open Internet rules and policy. This ruling affects millions of Internet users across the nation and could determine the future of their access to it.
So What Is It?
Network neutrality means a free, open Internet. It defends freedom of speech on the Internet by preventing service providers like Comcast from discriminating against certain kinds of Internet content by prohibiting access to it or slowing the rate at which it can be accessed. The Internet has become the primary means of entertainment, news and communication for most Americans. As a result, cable and telephone companies like Verizon and Comcast are pushing for the ability to charge content providers for access to networks, web sites and applications, as well as the speed needed to surf the web. Users who refuse to pay these costs to big cable and telephone companies will experience the most content limitations. Without net neutrality, permission to freely invent, create, communicate, broadcast or share online is effectively revoked.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union’s website, abolishing net neutrality would allow corporations to manipulate users’ data. “[Companies] can program the computers that route that information to interfere with the data flow by slowing down or blocking traffic and communicators that they don’t like (and speeding up traffic they do like or that pays them extra for the privilege). Imagine if the phone company could mess with your calls every time you tried to order pizza from Domino’s, because Pizza Hut is paying them to route their calls first.”
Those refusing to pay for access to Internet content may find many of the websites and applications they use have been blocked or made so sluggish they are nearly impossible to navigate. Furthermore, without net neutrality, the Internet will become hierarchical, with only users who can pay the most for speed and content at the top tier. Those who are unable to pay could be left with Internet service so slow it is rendered unusable. In a recent blog post on its website, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) stated the problem “isn’t only a matter of blocking traffic or forbidding users from reaching a certain site or using certain software. It could be a matter of infrastructure fights that make some parts of the Internet dramatically faster and more reliable to reach than others.”
Supporters argue one of the most crippling consequences to abolishing net neutrality is that our first amendment rights can be undermined. Without net neutrality in place, corporations can limit users’ access to content that could be considered controversial or subversive. Additionally, proponents of net neutrality believe the innovation that was previously fostered online will be stifled if an open Internet is done away with. They argue Internet freedom is what allowed innovative startups like Facebook and Google to be created. Without net neutrality, many proponents worry that Internet service providers will decide which independent start-up companies will succeed and which will fail.
What’s Happening Right Now?
The key players in the most recent conflicts concerning net neutrality are between big cable and telephone companies and the FCC. Late last year, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the FCC’s Open Internet Order but allowed the commission to rewrite the rules for open Internet under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act. The FCC’s new authority in determining the fate of the Internet has some net neutrality supporters wary. On the organization’s blog, the EFF asks, “But how far can the FCC be trusted?” The EFF is skeptical of the FCC involvement in net neutrality, arguing, “The FCC has sometimes shown more concern for the demands of corporate lobbyists and “public decency” advocates than it has for individual civil liberties.”
The EFF is concerned the FCC’s new rules will benefit big business Internet service providers. According to Mitch Stoltz, staff attorney at the EFF, “We are all walking a fine line here right now between concerns about overbearing regulation and concerns about monopolistic or abusive practices by Internet providers. I think we’re at risk for both.” In an open meeting in February, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler acknowledged the possibility of reclassifying the Internet in order to heavily regulate it, saying simply, “There are all kinds of tools in the toolbox. We’re adding, not subtracting what’s in that toolbox.”
Comcast and Time Warner Cable Merger
In February, Comcast and Time Warner Cable announced plans to merge. The Comcast-Time Warner merger would create the nation’s largest internet service provider. The impact this merger could have on Internet users is enormous. According to a statement released by the EFF, “With only one or two broadband providers available in most parts of the country, prices may soar while the quality of services plummets.”
The merging of these two companies would knock out any possible competition; the Comcast-Time Warner merger would have five times the number of subscribers as its closest competitor, according to the EFF. The EFF claims, “A lack of competition raises serious concerns that huge ISPs will be able to favor particular sites and services.”
How It Will Affect You
Abolishing net neutrality will impact all Internet users. In the age of social media, where sites like Facebook and Twitter have become the number one means of communication and entertainment, many Americans, especially students and young people, balk at the idea of paying for Internet service. F Newsmagazine asked SAIC students how they felt about the protection of net neutrality. According to April Roy, “The Internet should not be priced by different cable companies or by the government, it should exist as one neutral entity.”
However, she is unsurprised at the many attacks on net neutrality. “[The Internet] will probably go the same way as cable,” she says. “It’ll be run like a phone company, you’d have different plans, people will have to pay for different privileges. How will I afford Tumblr?” The stifling of ingenuity and invention that may occur if neutrality is completely done away with is particularly worrisome to artists whose practices have to do with the Internet.
“Corporate control of the Internet could especially hinder the development of personal web pages with charges and fees,” states Jake Goble, another SAIC student. “The abolition of net neutrality could negatively affect artists and web and graphic designers like me.” For him Google Drive, for example, is an essential tool he uses to save very large files. “I don’t want to be denied the right to do that.”