Let’s say something big happened at Yale. Like, huge. Smart investing causes Yale’s endowment to skyrocket, giving free tuition to everyone, or something. Of course, the News breaks the story, but major media sources like The Wall Street Journal catch on soon after.
With the current architecture of the Web, the two sources are on an equal footing. The bits and bytes from both the News and the Journal would reach you at the same time. This is known as “net neutrality,” and it is central to the competitive, open landscape of the Internet. Users can choose their news source based on the quality of information, personal preference or convenience of use.
Internet Service Providers (ISPs), though, want to assert more control over their networks by favoring certain types of content and discriminating against others. Creating a “fast lane” for The Wall Street Journal — who can clearly afford it — seems like an obvious business move on the part of the ISPs. This, however, not only undermines the idea of net neutrality, but also imperils our society’s fundamental principle of freedom of speech.
In fact, some people, such as Minnesota senator Al Franken, have called this the biggest free speech issue of our generation. Without net neutrality, small bloggers — like you, me or the human rights activist halfway around the world — would not stand a chance against media conglomerates.
Discriminatory practices also hurt competition between online service providers. Without net neutrality, the AT&Ts and Comcasts of the world would give preferential treatment to their own specialized services. If any one of these companies had monopolized bandwidth to promote their own video streaming or online phone services, one can only wonder if mostly free services such as Hulu or Skype, or any number of websites, would exist. Google, Yahoo and Facebook — all of which were created by students — would not have survived outside their university birthplaces had their creation been systematically biased against.
So who needs to step up? Since this is a regulatory issue, I’d hope the government would have done something about it. But nothing has happened since Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski reaffirmed last year that net neutrality was a top issue for the Obama administration. Genachowski’s announcement in May to secure the FCC’s jurisdiction over the Internet by reclassifying it under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934 — Bush-era lobbying had pushed the FCC to classify the Internet under Title I, which gives the government far less oversight — has so far proven to be little more than words.
With the Obama administration unwilling to act on its game plan, companies with vested interests in the Internet — namely Google and Verizon — have decided to play. Their plan, proposed last month, would secure net neutrality, but on their terms. Net neutrality would only apply to the wired internet, a stipulation that makes little sense today when more and more people browse the Web on their smartphones. And ISPs would still be able to provide preferential treatment for some of their services. Goodbye Hulu, YouTube and Netflix.
An open, level playing field on the Internet is important in all regards. If ISPs and established companies can monopolize the Internet, the earnest blogger won’t be able to deliver the “better” truth, the budding artist won’t be able to rise up and the college-going entrepreneur won’t be able to make it big. It’s up to us to reclaim the Internet for ourselves.