The Internet shares many common traits with water. First, it is practically free for use given that one pays their taxes. Just as every citizen has access to tap water, all citizens have access to Wi-Fi in public spaces. Second is that both have their own prestigious versions. Water has the mineral rich Evian, or the carbon infused Perrier. The Internet has more free data and better reception to use for extra fees. What would happen if tap water were to be replaced with Evian? What will happen when one has to pay for every data transaction?
▲ FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. Provided by Arstechnica.com
The Vitality of Net Neutrality On December 14, 2017, Ajit Pai, chariman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) of the United States (U.S.), released a statement that relayed one message to the whole world: net neutrality rules were repealed with 3 for and 2 against, and the Internet is no longer free. The masses’ opinion of the measure was, and still is, belligerent; it is becoming a mixture of volatile memes and outrageous diatribes. Ajit Pai explained his proposal to the masses using a video in which he tried to worm his way out of his predicament in a humorous way. Unsurprisingly, the video received an overwhelming 169 thousand dislikes before being taken down on December 16, 2017.
So What is Net Neutrality?
What exactly is net neutrality and why has it piqued so many individuals' interests? Net neutrality is basically a principle that states no service, such as wire communication agencies or companies, should be able to discriminate against users. Every internet user uses the Internet under the same conditions which, in most cases, concerns the speed of the connections or what websites they can access. Charging money for specific websites or content is therefore illegal under the auspices of net neutrality rules.
This does not mean that the Internet is free from commercialization. Net neutrality concerns only the connection to the Internet, not entertainment or additional products for sale therein. Essentially, repealing net neutrality allows corporations to put a price tag on every click and every letter written on the web. It does not concern one’s actions once they are on the Internet, but rather the amount of electricity used on privately owned wires to access the web in the first place.
▲ Former AT&T CEO Edward Whitacre. Provided by Carsanddrivers.com
“Anybody who expects to use pipes for free is nuts,” AT&T Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Edward Whitacre stated in his 2014 press conference. This allows one to glimpse why repealing net neutrality terrifies so many people; Internet Service Providers (ISPs) want to demand money for every website that its users, be them huge corporationsor the everyday man, access. While it is not a certainty, repealing net neutrality opens the door for ISPs to injudiciously take advantage of Internet users, where they could charge their customers as they see fit.
There are examples of net neutrality being repealed in other countries besides the U.S. One such example is Portugal, where the nation’s largest telecommunication company MEO designed its products to fit a society with no net neutrality. The mobile data packages they sell are not just about access speed, as they have different packages for different kinds of websites. Social media for 4.99 euros, video content for 4.99, and the same goes for music streaming, messaging, and cloud networking. Basic payment without the additional 4.99 yields a personal computer (PC) that is, in effect, dead, since it cannot be used to access any websites or the Internet itself.
▲ What Internet Service Providers are. Provided by Techterms.com
A Tumultuous History
Although the controversy surrounding net neutrality has become incredibly heated as of late, tussles regarding the matter are nothing new. The difference between the status quo and the past is that movements to repeal net neutrality used to be a bad Republican joke about conservative extremism, epitomized by corporate greed. However, in the age where a candidate who started as a joke ascended to the position of U.S. President, many people–both online and offline–are genuinely concerned now that the repeal has become a reality.
Controversy regarding net neutrality started when the FCC decided to treat conventional means of communications, such as phones, and the Internet differently for regulatory purposes by decreasing their hold on cable on October 1, 2002. This allowed for Internet cables to be much cheaper and almost free to most users. To encapsulate this concept in a single phrase, Professor Tim Wu of Columbia Law School first coined the phrase “net neutrality” in a law review article. Ever since, such difference in treatment has been symbolized and largely generalized by the usage of the term.
However, telecommunications agencies and corporations that owned the physical wires and cables have continuously tried to wrest back control of their wires from the law. There were several instances of this throughout the years. For example, the FCC fined North Carolina-based ISP Madison River Communications for blocking its subscribers from using Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service that competes with their own voice calling offerings in 2005. The movement against net neutrality thusstarted long ago, albeit with the administration being skeptical of net neutrality’s application.
The Story from Both Sides
The start of the movement for net neutrality repeal is based on the belief that the rights of communication service providers should be respected as much as that of consumers. Currently, massive corporations such as Netflix, Facebook, and Google are turning out an enormous profit using the net without sharing any returns with net providers. Although the Internet does not belong to anyone, the notion that wires for Internet access can be privately owned is economically sound in a capitalist society.
▲ Professor Oh Taewon. Photographed by Kim Jeong Ho
Professor Oh Tae-won (College of Informatics) stated, “Repealing net neutrality is hardly a problem in the most fundamental economic sense.” He further went on to mention that the goal of the repeal is correct, but that the people’s distrust of the government is what makes them apprehensive. “For good reason too,” he said. “Many officials in the public sector are not experts on net neutrality, and they currently do not have the tools to protect everyday users in the battle of corporate titans.”
Behind the question of whether telecommunication companies should have total control over the traffic that passes through their wires lies the problem of abusing common property. The amount of web traffic that webbased corporations take up and the portion that can be attributed to the average person is vastly different. Advocates of repealing net neutrality bank on this fact as the foundation for their case, since net neutrality allows the website-based companies to essentially act as free riders on net providers’ wires. The more space one uses, the more they should pay is the logic that proponents embrace. Net neutrality is problematic in this sense because it makes the everyman’s blog the equal of major powerhouse companies, despite the difference in the costs of management.
This line of thought, however, does not take into consideration another major factor involved: the Internet. The wires may be the property of the ISPs, but the networks that have been created via such wires are not. The opponents of net neutrality make this the focal point of their argument; the wires and connection devices are inextricable from the Internet. Limited or preferential access to the wire is synonymous to the same level of access to the Internet. With net neutrality already having been repealed, consumers simply have to pay more without receiving any benefits. The status quo remains the same, but the cost increases.
▲ Analogy of Different Access Speeds. Provided by BOREALISENTERTAINMENT.ORG
What Should the Middleman Think?
The main problem of repealing net neutrality lies in how the FCC is touching the wrong rule for the right reasons. If companies make profits without compensating for their usage while doing everyone a disservice with their immense traffic, new regulations that directly address such free riding are what should be drafted. A concrete standard or rule on business-tobusiness transactions, in this case for those between ISPs and web-based corporations, must be established. The repeal of net neutrality is a maelstrom that sucks the consumer into the calculations of transactions they were never a part of.
It is true that if such standards are introduced, years will pass by until the legislation fully takes root. There are vastly diverse websites, commodities, and technicalities involving finance and taxation. On a brighter note, regulations focused on company payment possess a flexibility sorely missing in others. The numbers pertaining to companies’ and individuals’ data usage are always available, and the corresponding payment that they will be obliged to make can be adjusted according to said numbers. Other regulations, such as the question of whether to repeal net neutrality or not, however, lack this sort of tractability. In other words, there is no middle ground; either companies coast by as free riders along with consumers or everyone pays an indefinite amount of money to remunerate ISPs regardless of how much data they consume.
In the end, net neutrality can be withdrawn for the right reasons, but doing so takes away the biggest advantage the underprivileged and the ordinary have against the elite, or the ISPs and web-based corporations. If information becomes exclusive to only those who can afford it, the world will be no different from the Middle Ages where the conceited nobility ruled over ignorant peasants. Information is not simply information; it is power and money. Net neutrality is what keeps this dynamic available to all people, which therefore makes it a vital pillar of modern democracy. The thing to distrust is not the repeal of net neutrality itself, but how it might be abused.