I am writing a paper on Net Neutrality where I explore what net neutrality is and why should we care.
In this paper, we have tried to address the issue of net neutrality. We will try to go through the history of free internet issue and try to analyze all possible arguments and counter arguments to weigh the options available to get a comprehensive view. Net neutrality is providing full-unrestricted access to internet. Whereas tiered pricing would provide high-speed data for some content and some information would be blocked or throttled. US govt. has always maintained their stand to preserve net neutrality and fought against the Internet Service Providers in that regard. The users mostly believe net neutrality being the better option but there are other views too. The political color would add a different flavor to the issue in US.
HISTORY OF NET NEUTRALITY
The debate over net neutrality seems relatively new but its roots track way back in the 1980s. The telegraph and phone system were considered common carriers under US law and regulations were there against any kinds of preferential treatment. Moreover, FCC (Federal Communication Commission) ensured fair pricing and access. In 1982, Judge Harold Green maintained that phone companies should not sell information. FCC argued that the companies are already drawing profit from both the ends and they selling the information as well would create a policy issue. 1984 Cable act and 1996 Telecommunications act allowed cable system to remain closed and they obtained the permission to become internet service providers. The 1996 telecommunication act was the first comprehensive step to reform US media policy and prepared people for the digital era. This deregulation effort was to provide free market and increased competition. In early 2000, some concerns were already started to make the rounds regarding discriminating behavior of the internet. The cable companies were getting tied up with internet providers in an effort to reach out to customers by enforcing preferential access to their own content (Meinrath & Pickard, 2008). Meanwhile the FCC was also gearing up to bring some non-discrimination principles. In early 2005, Madison River case happened where Madison River Communications were blocking voice over IP services (Marsden, 2010). FCC interfered but no official prosecution was made as Madison agreed for settlement. In 2004, USTA Vs FCC case resulted in preparation of four principles for net neutrality as follows:-
1. Consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice;
2. Consumers are entitled to run applications and services of their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement;
3. Consumers are entitled to connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network; and
4. Consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers
In 2007, the case of Comcast vs BitTorrent was taken seriously by FCC which gave orders against Comcast’s activities of throttling BitTorrent’s bandwidth and that made a landmark in the history of net neutrality. Through this case FCC made its first internet management decision.
In 2009, FCC made a few additional proposals to be added to existing principles and brought wireless providers under same ruling (Palmer, 2010).
In 2010 through two rulings, United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit concluded that FCC lacked authority to impose such regulations.
In December 2010 FCC voted and passed a set of net neutrality principles with following features:- Transparency, No blocking, Level playing field, Network management, Mobile, Vigilance. But in 2014 DC Circuit court again narrowed FCC’s authority by saying “FCC has no authority to enforce Network Neutrality rules, since service providers are not identified as ‘common carriers’” (Wright, 2013).
In 2015, FCC releases Title II Net Neutrality Rules in which it broadened its authority keeping an eye on the previous court cases and upheld the open internet policy by banning any kind of blocking, throttling and paid prioritization.
Similar situation has arisen in India with the introduction of concept ‘Free basic’. The internet service providers like Airtel with association of some big content providers and e-commerce giant Flipkart want to introduce controlled environment in the internet where content providers would have to pay the service providers for reaching to customers with uncontrolled speed. This association also made proposal to provide some basic educational service free of cost for development of computer literacy in the country. However, this proposal faced a lot of opposition from the internet users and knowledgeable people for the ethical issues regarding controlled access to information. Now the matter is under the consideration of TRAI and awaiting decision.
Media has always taken stands to promote the view of the populists. In this case, also they act no different. The issue of net neutrality has its own set of positives and negatives but newspaper, irrespective of which one, promoted FCC’s net neutrality. Even though it seems the right deed to pursue as that would mean they are supporting free internet. But the downfall of the event is, the other side of the coin remains hidden and public opinion does not get tested on both of them. Critical analysis of the whole system remains untouched and we find a dearth for the concept of devil’s advocacy. They duly promote net neutrality, as that would be the more popular view as the mass is concerned. It has promoted highly the advantages of open internet and how we are going to enjoy access to whatever we want with same level of bandwidth.
CNN puts light on the matter from a neutral perspective without advocating any of the view and tries to judge the future of net neutrality (Goldman & Pagliery, 2015). It argues that not necessarily net neutrality is here to stay as all the service providers are gearing up for legal battle but for the time being, it is safe.US News take a deep drive to see what net neutrality means for content providers like Netflix, Skype, Xbox whose success depends on download speed and capacity. For them net neutrality is a boom as their service would face significant barrier to reach to the customer and they will have to shell out a lot of money to stay in the business (Risen, 2015).
However there are articles talking about ill effects of net neutrality. This article brings out two myths and argues against them. The claim is made that net neutrality would not affect investment in internet infrastructure. However, in reality capital expenditure of internet service providers are going down. ISPs invest to scale up or expand their service. Net neutrality is hurting their case of being profitable. Secondly, net neutrality does not help startups to gain market by advertisements. Nevertheless, Tiered pricing can help them where their content can be promoted to targeted customers for better visibility and hence providing them better chance to establish their business. Example of such service is zero rating (Layton & Chao, 2016).
Video content provider Netflix had contract with Comcast for promoting their content in quality and speed. However, once the contract expired they started supporting net neutrality. Therefore, it is kind of a double standard from Netflix (Layton R. , 2014).In another article, Josh Steimle argues that demolition of net neutrality would bring up more competition and deregulation always leads to technological innovation. Startups in order to profitable will have to be much more innovative, that would create a better market, and better products would reach customers. Moreover, the internet privacy matters will be addressed, as the content will be regulated (Steimle, 2014).
To understand the views we can segregate the stakeholders. ISPs, Content providers, Users and Govt are main stakeholders here. Now it is totally clear regarding the point of views of ISPs as they are against net neutrality & for tiered pricing and on the other hand content providers and FCC is for net neutrality. Now it is to be seen how users take this issue. Although the issue is too recent to be reviewed from the point of view of the user but we can unearth some trend from the comments made by users to FCC. FCC asked users to comment on tiered bandwidth service proposal and users strongly disagreed with this as they would not let others decide what content reaches them. However there is a different school of thought present in which people see tiered service as a more progressive one (Steimle, 2014). The feel it deregulation always helps innovation and that makes market more competitive. Some people think it would give govt. a lot of controlling power and they don’t see it positively. Charging everyone same does not seem fair to them. The consumers are paying differently for their plan and so should the content providers. Politically the ideas are divided as democrats are pro net neutrality and republicans are against it.However race, ethnicity or other distinctive factor does not put any effect on the issue. But economic condition might have. As economically, sound people would be ready to shell out extra money to enjoy ‘Fast Lanes’ with high capacity (Litan & Singer, 2014).People who are pro innovation would feel this move from FCC obstructing.
Before we plunge into the ethical perspectives of the net neutrality issue, we should identify the different stakeholders and see how different ethical issues are hurting them. Different stakeholders would be Service providers, content providers, Govt. regulatory body and Consumers.Ethical issues hindering service provider’s business:- This issue is more economic in nature, as the regulation applied by FCC means violation of the concept of free market and the service providers are not allowed to devise their own business plans even when they are trying to serve people through technological innovation. The service providers have invested a lot of money to build countrywide infrastructure and they should be allowed to choose whom they want to serve and what price they would charge for those services. The concept of ‘Fast lane’ would mean a lot of improvement in internet speed that would benefit the customer. By regulating the activities of the service providers, FCC is violating their right to do business and right to choice (Becker, Carlton, & Sider, 2011).
Ethical issues to content providers: - If differential access is provided to the customers, then they would access the content from providers who pay to the service providers, hence content from some providers would not reach the customer at all. That is violating the right to reach customers (Given, 2007). The same applies to throttling of bandwidth as that would influence customers to omit that content as speed of the content is a driving factor for the customers. Moreover the internet is a free zone and service providers by declining or throttling the services are actually regulating legal things which goes against the notion of internet freedom.
Moreover, existing and well established content providers would receive undue advantage only because they have deep pockets and would be able to pay for the premium services but new startups would not be able to pay and their content would not reach customers or reach with reduced speed. In such case, no new startups would be able to make a business out of internet. This differential treatment is an ethical issue indeed and leads to economic issues (Marsden, 2010).
Issue regarding monopoly: - The bigger businesses would pay for better speed and once they are able to drive smaller players out of business, they will gain monopoly in the market. Monopolistic condition in the market is always bad for consumers as they lose choice and becomes susceptible to unregulated pricing. To avoid this monopolistic condition it is important that the market has a number of competitors and for that net neutrality is essential.
Ethical issue to customers:- The customer is paying for the internet service and they should have the right to make choice what they want to access. It should not be regulated by service providers. It violates their right to access information. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak said “Money is power, money is choice, and as a consumer I want to be able to make a choice of what comes to me, I don’t want other people to make a choice for me just because they have more money” (Becker, Carlton, & Sider, 2011).
Hindrance to technological innovation:- Net neutrality indirectly puts barriers to the introduction of high speed internet service. The service providers planned to recover the cost of creating high-speed internet infrastructure through their tiered pricing methodology where they can charge a premium for high-speed internet. But with the prevalence of net neutrality, the possibility to have such high speed ‘fast lanes’ gets jeopardized. This is an issue, regulatory bodies need to address as they are indirectly depriving the customers from enjoying a cutting edge technology and there are customers who are ready to pay that extra amount (Marsden, 2010).
Question 1:- Would you prefer free internet with low speed or restricted content with blazing speed and why?
Question 2:- Do you think tiered pricing of speed would create a problem of monopoly?
Question 3:- Will internet-based startups find it difficult to make a place for in the environment controlled by service providers?
Question 4:- If you need to give one reason for and against net neutrality, what would be that?
Question 5:- Do you think internet would be a better place to be without net neutrality and why?
For the time being net neutrality prevails but there will be a lot of challenges in future to be faced and a lot of obstacles to be overcome. The service providers are not going to leave the issue. They will be appealing against the regulation by FCC and it would be interesting to see if history repeats itself or net neutrality passes the test of time. If we consider the past then there might be verdict from court against FCC and that act as a mighty blow in the face of net neutrality. But only saving grace is last two verdicts went against FCC because court did not see enough authority in FCC but did not comment on the issue of net neutrality. With the latest regulation, effort has been made to bring the ISPs under the authority of FCC. Therefore, that might act in favor of net neutrality. Now it will be interesting to see if court finds the logic behind keeping a free internet sufficient or rules in favor of the service providers (Litan & Singer, 2014).
No one is ready to make a prediction on this status quo. Once the verdict comes from the federal court regarding the review of net neutrality rules set out by FCC, we would be at a better spot to make prediction.
But people are concerned about the technological innovation that AT&T was working on because those will be of no use if net neutrality prevails. However this type of indication has not been seen yet as AT&T filing for patents for those technologies. May be they are waiting for republican support.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg remarks “An unequal internet is better than no internet” says it all as the service provider companies might pull out of business if they don’t see profitability. But if Netherland’s case is taken as reference then even after two years of establishing net neutrality, internet apocalypse did not happen and healthy competition continues in the ISP market (Keseris, 2015).
Most important would be the political influence, as republicans prefer tiered pricing model and opposes net neutrality. Therefore, if they come to power then surely they will have a say about the whole ruling. However, they will also be wary of the fact that it will attract ire of millions. Hence, they would also try to find out some way out like some modified proposition (Howard, 2015).
However, it is for sure that the issue is far from settled and is going to become forever politicized.
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After considering all the arguments and counter arguments, it can be concluded that both the strategies have their own advantages. In one hand we have high-speed internet and on the other unrestricted access to internet. The tradeoff has to be made. It needs to be kept in mind that after the restriction, we might not see our favorite content anymore. However, remote, the possibility is there. The startups will find it difficult initially but the services like zero rating would boost their visibility. But the concern stays with the restriction of content. I should be allowed to choose what I want to access. Maybe today I am not accessing some websites but tomorrow I might have to and in restricted condition it would be difficult. The non-profit informational websites will find it difficult to reach to customers, as it would be difficult for them to take a premium service. Most of the users will find one thing irritating that some or the other website that they like will be blocked or throttled. Therefore, I personally would vote for net neutrality and would be content with low speed but unrestricted access.
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