Net neutrality refers to the regulation — or lack thereof — of the internet in terms of internet service providers (ISPs) and their relationships with content providers. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia’s January 14 decision to invalidate the FCC’s “open internet” ruling requiring broadband providers to treat all web traffic equally for speed and access has thrown the notion of the open internet into turmoil for many. While opinion on either side of the debate is quite polarized, both sides have important points to make.
Proponents of the FCC’s open internet ruling and of net neutrality in general favor regulation that ensures that ISPs are not allowed to favor certain content providers, charge others, or impede certain content altogether. Regulation that “frees” the internet so every user, no matter what broadband provider they rely on, can have access to the same websites and content. (This opinion usually coincides with the one that internet access should now be considered a human right instead of existing under the auspices of private companies that can manipulate pricing and access.)
Companies in favor of net neutrality are usually internet software companies such as Google, Amazon, and Netflix. They are the ones whose content could be stemmed or treated differently by ISPs without any regulation. They argue that — in order to maintain a free internet — there must be rules in place to encourage innovation on the start-up level. If web traffic is not all created equal, what kind of chance do the smaller companies have to get a foot in the door if they have to pay fees to ISPs or wrestle with bigger companies that are given different kinds of access?
Opponents of net neutrality say that the government is better off not sticking its hand in where it doesn’t belong; that the province of the internet should be left to the ones who provide it, and that only without regulation can the internet truly be free. They find the threat of ISP manipulation of access a nonissue, and claim that if the government is not allowed to overstep and place rules on how ISPs and content providers interact, that it will foster more of a sense of innovative freedom, and spur on web-based development.
Indeed, there is something to be said for this side of the argument, especially in light of the new privacy concerns that have emerged after the NSA leaks. Could giving broadband providers more control over how their internet traffic is channeled pave the way for a more private method of web usage? Could invalidating the “free and open internet” rules make way for ISPs to privately eliminate or self-block pirating sites, which, in the opinion of many, inhibit a healthy economy? Could smaller ISPs now take the plate and say, “I have the best broadband option because I do not charge content providers the way the giants (like Verizon) do” ultimately creating a more competitive, healthy internet market?
The debate will likely continue for as long as internet exists. Some have ideas for how to resolve it. Former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps calls for broadband to be classified as telecoms are under Title II of the Communications Act. Whatever the answer — if there is one — both arguments seem to want the same thing: an open internet that fosters new technological innovation.