Since the dawn of the human race, advances in technology have led to advances in the exchange of information. Information exchange, in turn, yields economic benefits. Today, the Internet links the entire globe, allowing consumers to access a greater variety of services and consumer reactions to services than ever before. Enterprising people have made fortunes by starting Internet businesses that provide time- or cost-saving services to users. Netflix, Amazon, Google — all succeeded because the Internet is a level playing field across which consumer preferences determine profitability. With the Internet, you succeed less because of how you market your product and more because of the inherent value of your product.
But now, Capitol Hill is embroiled in a debate that may determine whether the Internet continues to be consumer-driven, or whether its power of connectivity will be endangered.
Internet neutrality — the concept under discussion — means that users, not Internet service providers, decide which Web sites have high traffic and which do not. Up until now, users have borne the entire cost of Internet access, but rising costs of providing high-bandwidth connections have made providers look for alternate income sources. Attempting to dip into a different market, some leading providers, such as AT&T and Verizon, have declared their intent to provide a pay-to-play “fast lane.” In exchange for payments from Web sites, service providers would allow them more bandwidth. Those sites that could not pay would be relegated to the “slow lane.”
By removing neutrality, providers threaten to sap the Internet of its entrepreneurial spirit. Providers would be free to slow down non-paying sites with impunity, trying to force them to take the paying track. Additionally, sites that would compete with services offered by providers — or by companies affiliated with providers — could be slowed down simply because they are competition. Users, faced with better, slower-loading sites and faster sites of lesser quality, would be presented with a conundrum. Non-neutrality lessens the importance of good ideas and increases the importance of capital; essentially, it favors corporations at the cost of small businesses. Smaller, grass-roots sites like blogs, activist groups and church sites that cannot possibly pay for high bandwidth would suffer.
But don’t grab your pitchforks and torches just yet. The providers contemplating a “tiered” Internet deserve a chance to defend themselves. First, they claim that the rise of high-bandwidth sites such as videos and voice-over IP, coupled with urban users’ ability to share connections via wireless modems, makes recouping the costs of laying down high-bandwidth networks more difficult. Were they not to charge Web sites, they would have to charge users more. Increased regulation would also lower the incentive for companies to invest in new, higher-powered networks, thus slowing down the development of the Internet. Finally, since the concern over Internet neutrality is new, maintaining it requires legislation. Companies have demonstrated, correctly, that Internet neutrality violations have been few in America, and consequently that an intervention at this stage would be premature and risks over-regulation.
Nevertheless, the Internet’s power as a social force counters these arguments. Costly new networks need to be charged to their actual consumers: Internet users. If regulatory legislation deters some providers from upgrading their networks, users would, if possible, switch to providers with new networks. Consequently, market forces would favor providers with newer, higher-bandwidth networks. A non-neutral Internet would discourage competition, thereby costing consumers money and diminishing the benefits of lower subscription rates for Internet access. More importantly, people today pay for Internet access with the understanding that they are accessing a wide, level field of sites where only their preferences will guide them. Non-neutrality changes the very essence of the Internet, thereby making the product provided to users less valuable. Even if few issues have arisen thus far, when an institution with the scope of the Internet changes at its very core, only great commitment to regulation could return the status quo to neutrality.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the debate is how diverse the supporters of Internet neutrality are. While conglomerates, free commerce associations and Internet providers predictably line up against the proposed neutrality legislation, proponents of the legislation run the gamut of business sizes and political leanings. Over one million people have signed Internet petitions for neutrality. Yet the congressional battle rages on, with new polls showing that voter awareness of neutrality is less than Internet activists would make it seem. With collective awareness and action, consumers can maintain the Internet as an impartial forum, out of the hands of would-be gatekeepers.
Dariush Nothaft is a junior in Saybrook College.