Net Neutrality is a Good Thing

AmplifyWhat is the Internet? It seems like an easy question, but is it? Do we really know what the Internet is? We know what Facebook or Google is. We know what we use every day on our phones. However, who can actually formulate an accurate definition of the Internet? That is our first step on the way to stasis. What is it? We can argue about it, we can debate how to use it, but without a definition, it is just sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Here is one definition from Webopedia: A global network, connecting millions of computers, the internet is the infrastructure, and each computer can communicate with any other computer, as long as they are both connected to the internet. It was originally created for military use in the late 1960’s. In the 1980’s we started to see it put to use. But the big date is 1991. 1991 was when the World Wide Web (WWW) became widely established. Many think the WWW is a synonym for Internet, but it is not. The Internet is the hardware. The WWW is the software, the information that is available over the Internet. And the early 90’s was when that information became available to everybody, primarily because of a concept known as net neutrality.

The core principal of net neutrality is open access to the WWW. This idea started in the 1980’s with Tim Berners-Lee, who more or less invented the WWW. Lee did not file for a patent or seek royalties for his creation. He set the precedent that the web (and the internet as a whole) should follow now and in the future.

Even as late as 1993 web usage was very basic. You might look up a phone number or an address, maybe even a sports score. There was some other content, but very little. Several major companies did not even have their own webpage. That all began to change with the introduction of Mosaic, which was later known as Netscape. This was the first real search engine, and it made the web available to anyone with a computer and a phone line.

In 1996 the FCC chose not to regulate the internet, therefore it was not classed as a utility. Many people believe that with specific regulations or even general government oversight the internet and the WWW would not have grown up to become the ubiquitous force they are today. I am willing to concede that point. At that time the Internet itself was an emerging technology. Now the Internet and the web have matured into an established technology. The issue has become how we use that technology.

The online world has become critical to our lives, some would say as critical as food, water, shelter, or electricity. In American society, we consider these critical services to be basic human rights, as opposed to privileges or traditional consumer goods. I will review the evidence that Internet access is a basic human right and should be regulated as such by the federal government.

It has become increasingly more difficult to live a reasonably full life with no Internet access. One can still receive electricity or water without using the internet, but it is not easy. Phone calls must be made, letters must be sent. With no cell phone or voicemail (which is internet based), basic communication suffers. Most employers communicate with their staff almost exclusively through email. Even hourly workers in a factory are unlikely to punch in and out on a time clock anymore, they use online programs that track their work hours.

Let us assume for a moment that a working adult manages to find a job, a place to live, and the necessary resources without use of the Internet. That person may want to have a child. Doctor’s offices, insurance companies, and pharmacies are highly reliant on internet-based communication, electronic medical records, online billing, etc. And even if that can be navigated without the Internet, once the child reaches school he or she will receive assignments that require Internet access and usage. This doesn’t even take into account the psychological damage to a child who is completely out of touch with modern society.

In the early part of the twentieth century, many people argued against rural electrification. They said that a power source was only needed in urban areas for factories and related infrastructure. In the middle of the twentieth century, people argued against the interstate highway system, claiming that people should be responsible for their own transportation, or better yet, people should just stay where they are. I believe that these are apt comparisons, because the Internet has had the same socioeconomic effect on society that electricity and interstate transportation did.

Thus far, I have focused on the effects of net neutrality rules on the consumer. Opponents of net neutrality tend to focus on the providers, particularly large corporations such as AT & T, Verizon, Comcast, and Time Warner who bring the Internet to the masses. These companies own the infrastructure, including hundreds of thousands of miles of wire and cables crisscrossing this country and the entire world. Several of these corporations descend from Alexander Graham Bell’s original company, formed in 1877 after his telephone patent was approved. They have been fighting regulation since Theodore Roosevelt was targeting Standard Oil.

The argument against net neutrality from these companies is that they own the telecommunications infrastructure, and should be allowed to sell it, as well as the services it provides, as they see fit. In other words, the free market decides. If the service is inadequate, or too expensive, or unfairly distributed, then the consumers will vote with their feet. This argument is not completely without merit, but I do not think net neutrality restricts commerce in the way these companies imply it does. In fact, the business model of these companies is based on avoiding the free market; They operate as de facto monopolies in most places.

There are several large companies on the other side of the issue as well. Giants such as Google and Netflix would not exist if net neutrality had not been in place when they were created. Comcast and Time Warner are not only Internet Service Providers, they are also content providers (Comcast owns NBC and Hulu, Time Warner owns HBO and CNN, among many, many other things). Therefore, without net neutrality, Comcast could choose to provide superfast data transfers for customers streaming video through Hulu, and slow data transfers for customers streaming Netflix.

A counter argument from the ISP’s might be that data transfer is expensive. If Netflix wants to pay additional fees, they can have the data streamed at a faster rate. That sounds reasonable, right? But it favors large, already established companies over startups without the funds to pay for speedy data transfer. This will crush innovation and entrepreneurship, as no independent company could compete with the data speeds of established conglomerates.

These are just a few examples of how net neutrality evens the playing field, and allows innovation that spurs economic growth in addition to providing a basic utility service to the population as a whole.

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