What is Net Neutrality ?

By Julianne Tveten

Kitchen Table Socialism:

This spring, Congress passed anti-online-privacy legislation that could hinder organizing efforts by groups like DSA while channeling millions of dollars into corporations. President Donald Trump signed into law a bill that allows Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to harvest sensitive data, such as medical information, geolocation, and Web-browsing history, and sell it to advertisers. 

This could be just the beginning. Many open-Internet activists fear that the anti-privacy vote is a bellwether for gutting another tenet of online democracy: net neutrality. Net neutrality is the principle that ISPs should allow users equal access to all online content and applications regardless of the source. It dictates that telecommunications companies aren’t allowed to accelerate traffic for preferred sites (that is, sites that pay extra, are affiliated with them, or that they find politically savory) or obstruct traffic to sites they deem unfavorable.

Net neutrality has governed the Internet in the United States since February of 2015, when the Federal Communications Commission reclassified broadband as a utility and set forth regulations equivalent to those placed on phone service and electricity providers. This move followed a ruling in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that the FCC did not have sufficient regulatory power over broadband Internet. Only by reclassifying broadband as a utility could the FCC ensure net neutrality and curb fraudulent billing and price gouging.

To understand the gravity of losing net neutrality, consider this example: In 2007, Verizon severed subscriber access to a text-messaging program from the pro-choice nonprofit NARAL, explaining that it would not host communications from any group “that seeks to promote an agenda or distribute content that, in its discretion, may be seen as controversial or unsavory to any of our users.” Fortunately, Verizon reversed its censorship of NARAL after large user protests.

Were net neutrality to be razed, the repercussions would be infinite. Comcast, an ISP, might decide to charge users $5 per month to visit popular free sites, such as Facebook or Wikipedia, justifying the charge with such disingenuous labels as “convenience fee” or “service fee.” In so doing, it would stymie the flow of information to low-income Internet users, who are already subject to slow speeds and prohibitive broadband costs. Similarly, if AT&T workers strike due to poor working conditions—which happened earlier this year—and create a website to publicize their grievances and seek support, the company might opt to prevent its broadband subscribers from accessing it, committing a veritable act of union-busting censorship.

Former Verizon lawyer Ajit Pai, who was appointed to the FCC by Barack Obama and voted against net neutrality in 2015, has been appointed head of the FCC by Trump. In April, spurred by telecom lobbyists, Pai proposed a far more lax “plan” for ISP regulation: remove broadband’s utility classification, replace net neutrality with ISPs’ “voluntary” commitment to a select few net neutrality facets in their terms of service, and transfer oversight to the Federal Trade Commission, which lacks the FCC’s preemptive regulatory power. In other words, Pai seeks to jettison any legal enforcement of the principle.

The opposition to Pai’s proposals, however, is vehement and vast. Because eradicating net neutrality only truly benefits ISPs, a number of corporations and nonprofits seek to keep it intact. The Internet Trade Association—whose members include giants like Google, Facebook, Amazon, Reddit, and Netflix—is lobbying to maintain it. Its rationale, of course, is strictly pro-business: without net neutrality, user accessibility to these sites—and thus the companies’ profits—will be compromised. Far more meaningful is the work of such groups as Free Press and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which are legally defending digital rights while mobilizing activists to meet with elected officials, attend town hall meetings, and take other local action.

If capitalism is allowed to run rampant, the only thing free on the Web will be the market. Only public activism can create an open, democratic Internet in the people’s best interest.

DSA member Julianne Tveten writes about the tech industry and social issues. Her work has appeared in Truthout, Hazlitt, and The Outline, among others.


This article originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Democratic Left magazine.


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