Net Neutrality and Your Voice

02 February 2017

Updated 21 July 2017

Net neutrality aims to protect the many voices that compose the Internet from censorship. The web has made it more possible than ever before to be informed and to be heard. More than half of Americans use the Internet as their primary source of information. An average of over 1.2 billion people per day shared their voices on Facebook in March 2017. Unfortunately, access to the Internet is provided by an industry with a near monopoly on providing service, that claims its own rights to free speech when it comes to deciding what their customers have access to. If the ISP industry has its say, the world of free speech that exists online could be divided and censored based on what the industry determines people are willing to pay for.

Service providers have in the past claimed—and some still claim—that control over what their customers see is their First Amendment right. Specifically, in a brief filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals, one of the Internet providers that still makes this claim says that net neutrality prevents them from favoring their own websites over other websites to send their own message. While a data provider claiming that it should have such control over what people can see is worrisome, the statement is true. Net neutrality requires Internet providers to deliver all websites at the same speed, the same way. The importance of that is underscored by the fact that large ISPs now often own their own media outlets. By throttling competing sites, encouraging their own services over others with zero-rating, or by outright blocking sites, ISPs control who can be heard and what can be known. As more communication moves to the digital world, ensuring that the same ideas that can be expressed in the physical world can be expressed without suppression on the Internet is extremely important.

If a site lacks the funding to pay for their service to be part of the open Internet or an Internet fast lane, that service may be doomed to fail even if it isn’t outright blocked. Zero-rating can increase the use of the data-exempt service substantially. Research from Microsoft suggests that slowing down a website by 250ms (the blink of an eye) makes users more likely to use a competitor. What that means for the owner of a small business or a personal website who can’t pay to be in one of the so-called “fast lanes” or sponsored data plans is much more difficulty in keeping visitors. Large companies could afford to pay the fees to for carriage in those fast lanes which right away makes their voice stronger than those not in a fast lane. Fast lanes of a form already exist. Companies such as Netflix pay for access to Internet fast lanes by putting their servers directly on Internet providers’ networks.

On a more individual level, a non-neutral Internet takes away your right to choose what voices you listen to. Internet service providers are for-profit companies whose goal is to maximize their already astronomical profits. By discouraging people from accessing sites—through the use of data caps, throttling, or zero-rating, service providers take control of what people are able to see. The vast majority of Internet subscribers in the U.S. have access to only one or two Internet providers. With so few options, there’s no easy way to vote with your wallet or choose a different ISP that offers you more access. Without competition, there’s little to stop ISPs from offering limited service at high prices.

Through net neutrality rules and regulation, we can keep the Internet an even playing field where all data and views are equally accessible. Internet service providers should not be gatekeepers to being heard online. The fact that an information provider would argue that they should be able to provide an editorialized version of the Internet is concerning, particularly when many of them own media outlets. We have had this discussion before with cable TV which due to legislation is not neutral. That means television carriers (cable providers) can drop networks that aren’t willing to pay their fees—as recently happened with a state news network in Connecticut—and that independent producers are almost entirely blocked from being shown. Without protections for net neutrality, the same could happen online. If we don’t fight for net neutrality now, we may find ourselves with few choices, limited information, and less ability to share our views. Large companies would rule and startups, individuals, and independent creators would be shut out.

Interested in net neutrality? Check out my book, Please Upgrade for Access, at book.thenaterhood.com.

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