January 24, 2014 by Nebi Mema
A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. struck down the Open Internet Order, more popularly known as net neutrality, Jan. 14. Net neutrality basically stated that Internet service providers could not discriminate against web traffic whether it is slowing down certain sites or speeding them up. The court found that since the Federal Communications Commission had ISPs classified as an “information service,” a classification that comes with less regulatory power, they had overstepped their statutory power with the open Internet order. In a sense, they struck it down based on a technicality. If they wanted to, the FCC could in theory reclassify Internet service providers as utilities and then could enforce net neutrality rules.
At face value, this decision looks like the Internet will be doomed. Companies like Verizon and Comcast can now slow down services such as YouTube and Netflix and speed up their own video streaming services. They could implement fast lane Internet highway systems where companies that pay more would get their content delivered faster to their customers.
Sounds gloomy, doesn’t it? Well not when you actually look more in depth at the issue. If we were to accept the notion that ISPs should be regulated like utilities, we should also accept similar pricing models. Most pricing schemes for water, electricity and gas are metered. You pay for how much you use. If I were to leave the water running in all my bathrooms for 24 hours a day, should I pay the same flat rate as someone who only has the water running for a total of two hours a day? Of course not: I should be paying a heck of a lot more because I’m using more.
Similarly, when using broadband Internet, if my neighbors are slowing down the network by watching Netflix 18 hours a day and I’m just watching one episode of “Law & Order,” they should be charged more for eating up more bandwidth. This is not a violation of a free and open Internet; it’s simple economics.
If we implement the stronger net neutrality rules that advocates say we should, you would be out of luck if your speeds are being slowed down because half the neighborhood is watching YouTube at 1080p. All of a sudden, we’d have people up in arms over how they can’t browse simple web pages thanks to slower-than-advertised speeds. We don’t complain about metered water or electricity, so why should we complain about metered broadband service?
Now I know people worry, what if the motivation to slow down Netflix is to push their content sites? For example, let’s say Verizon wanted to slow down speeds for Netflix so their customers are forced to switch to Redbox (which they co-own). Unfortunately, there would be a massive consumer backlash that would soon be a public relations nightmare for Verizon. Case in point, we look what happened to AT&T when they didn’t extend Apple’s FaceTime service for their customers that still had unlimited data plans. It wasn’t the FCC that elbowed AT&T into changing their policy. Public pressure pushed AT&T into allowing customers with unlimited data to use FaceTime over their cellular network.
I believe that ISPs should stay neutral when it comes to content whether it is the speed of YouTube or allowing articles being critical of their business to flow without disruption. However, I am skeptical of the push for expanded regulatory power of the FCC, especially when the government has had a poor track record when it comes to the Internet (the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act). Not to mention we put ourselves in this predicament when local municipalities grant monopoly rights to Internet providers in exchange for them to absorb the infrastructure cost. These monopolies didn’t come out of nowhere. We created and enabled them.
FCC commissioner Thomas Wheeler seems poised to only look at net neutrality infractions at a case-by-case basis, which he should. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to net neutrality policy.
Nebi Mema is an accounting major at Drexel University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.