If you’ve watched John Oliver or read The Oatmeal, you probably know what net neutrality is. If not, you’re probably already bored by this article. Although net neutrality sounds like a boring topic, it’s actually incredibly important to the structure of the Internet (that place where you watch cat videos and stream Breaking Bad). It’s so important that President Obama recently released a statement for its protection.
"Abandoning these principles would mean the end of the Internet as we know it," said Obama in a video statement. "That's why I'm laying out a plan that will keep the Internet free and open. That's why I'm urging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to do everything they can to protect net neutrality for everyone."
The basis of net neutrality (and of the Internet) is that all data is created equal. The internet is a level playing field; Internet Service Providers (ISPs) such as Comcast and Time Warner don’t prioritize one company’s data over another’s. However, this is potentially set to change.
In January, the Supreme Court struck down legislation that allowed the FCC to enforce the principle of net neutrality. In the spring, Tom Wheeler, chairman of the FCC, suggested the idea of allowing ISPs to charge for priority access to their network. This would give Internet Service Providers the power to discriminate against certain types of internet traffic in order to fit their business needs. This would also destroy the entire concept of net neutrality.
Destroying net neutrality would be harmful for everyone, even you, the college student. If paid “fast lanes” for companies existed in the mid-2000s, maybe Facebook doesn’t supplant MySpace due to being bogged down by artificially slow internet speeds. If Facebook couldn’t afford the fee for priority access to the network, maybe MySpace would’ve been so much faster that people chose not to try Facebook. Do you want to live in a world where people still use MySpace? I didn’t think so.
Destroying net neutrality would also mean higher costs for consumers. If Netflix has to pay more for priority access to the network to ensure fast download speeds, those costs will be passed on to the consumer.
Perhaps the most worrisome consequence of destroying net neutrality would be ISPs promoting their own content at the expense of another company’s. For example, Comcast owns NBC. If Comcast wants to drive viewers to NBC content, they would be able to artificially slow down the speed of Netflix or Amazon Prime or Hulu to the point where streaming from NBC.com content is the most attractive option. Instead of watching Breaking Bad, you would be watching Welcome to Sweden.
However, cable companies have stressed that they would not use these powers in ways that would profit their businesses at the expense of everyone else. The problem is, they already have.
In January, Comcast and Netflix were in negotiations. During negotiations, Comcast artificially slowed Netflix’s download speeds in order to leverage Netflix into paying what they demanded. And it worked. Netflix’s download speeds were so slow for Comcast customers that Netflix eventually caved. Ending net neutrality will give cable companies that kind of leverage over everyone.
And people are worried Wheeler will do just that. Before Wheeler was the head of the FCC, he was the head lobbyist for the cable industry. Now, he is running the government agency tasked with regulating that industry.
“That is the equivalent of needing a babysitter, and hiring a dingo,” said John Oliver on his HBO show, Last Week Tonight.
This is where President Obama steps in. Last week, Obama urged the FCC to reclassify ISPs as common carriers, which would give the FCC the regulatory power it needs to enforce net neutrality.
While many people are a proponent of this plan, others aren’t so sure. Some people believe that the plan is too broad and would subject ISPs to arcane regulations that would ultimately hurt the Internet. Others are waiting to see if Wheeler can come up with a more nuanced approach.
Ultimately, Obama’s statement has little impact on the FCC. It is an independent government agency, and it could completely ignore Obama if it wanted to. However, Obama’s comments highlight the importance of net neutrality and the importance of finding a solution that would preserve it.
If net neutrality is destroyed, cable companies are the only ones who would stand to benefit at the expense of everyone else. Everyone, from President Obama to Google, can recognize the harmful consequences of such an act.
Well, except for Ted Cruz, who, per usual, has no idea what’s going on.