“If this site was still loading, would you still be here?”
This is the question many Internet users found themselves asking on Wednesday, September 10 as they watched a red loading symbol spin frustratingly slow.
The false loading symbol was a part of a scheme hatched by net neutrality activists on battleforthenet.com called the “Internet Slowdown.” The mission of Battle for the Net is to preserve equal access to the Internet by preventing Internet service providers from slowing down services, blocking content, discriminating against competitors, and creating tiered Internet speeds that would allow companies to pay for priority.
On May 15, 2014, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposed new rules that would allow cable companies such as Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T to create a tiered Internet with varying speeds, permitting Internet service providers to place a premium price on high Internet speeds. The higher costs could be absorbed by the wealthy and willing, but everyday individual Internet users may be left in the dust.
Fears and concerns have also arisen relating to the power that these private companies would wield over the Internet. The Internet is a bastion for freedom of expression. Under the proposed FCC rules, however, cable companies could essentially discriminate against online content. Certain sites and content may be quelled by slower Internet speeds for political or economic reasons. For example, an Internet provider that stands to profit from the exploitation of one website over another could make it easier for Internet users to view the content that is most favorable to its economic interest, while slowing the speeds of the opposing content.
An open Internet has been a platform for free speech and opportunity for billions of users.
Entrepreneurs and start-up companies, which rely on the Internet, may also suffer as a consequence. Small and early-stage companies may not have the resources to pay for high speed Internet and would be unfairly disadvantaged. The Internet, once a hotbed for innovation, could potentially suffocate the very spirit of innovation that made the web what it is today.
In a letter endorsed by more than 100 large and small tech companies, including Facebook, Google, Netflix and Amazon, the message was clear: the proposed changes pose a “grave threat to the Internet.”
“Over the past twenty years, American innovators have created countless Internet-based applications, content offerings, and services that are used around the world. These innovations have created enormous value for Internet users, fueled economic growth, and made our Internet companies global leaders. The innovation we have seen to date happened in a world without discrimination. An open Internet has also been a platform for free speech and opportunity for billions of users.”
The letter advocates for rules that would protect users and Internet companies from blocking, discrimination, and paid prioritization. It also calls for greater transparency of the Internet marketplace and low costs of regulation. Such rules, the tech companies contend, are “essential for the future of the Internet.”
The proposed solution is fairly simple. By reclassifying Internet service providers as “common carriers,” the FCC would have broader powers to regulate the cable companies. In essence, the FCC would treat the Internet as a utility. Basic services are subject to common carrier laws, which prevent common carriers from discriminating against customers. In turn, the FCC could prevent cable companies from charging for faster delivery speeds.
Reclassification would “damage broadband providers, discourage infrastructure investment, stifle job growth, and harm consumers.
What is stopping the FCC from taking this step? One potentially influential factor is the hefty price tag of next-generation broadband. Service providers are poised to invest more than $30 billion annually over the next five years to build a nationwide, next-generation broadband infrastructure. Service providers believe that if the FCC tightens up on net neutrality rules, implementation of broadband infrastructure would be substantially stifled.
In a letter written on behalf of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, the cable companies argue that reclassification would “damage broadband providers, discourage infrastructure investment, stifle job growth, and harm consumers.”
The FCC has extended the public comment period to September 15, 2014. More than 4.9 million people have so far shown support of net neutrality by voicing opposition to the proposed FCC rules. Initiatives like the Internet Slowdown have continued to engage consumers throughout the public commenting period. If the FCC does not take reclassify service providers, net neutrality advocates are certain the Internet as we know it will face imminent death.
Editor’s Note: This article is the first in a two-part series on net neutrality. Part Two will be posted after the FCC’s public comment period ends.