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The dismantling of net neutrality, and why you should probably care.

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University of Virginia

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The dismantling of net neutrality, and why you should probably care.

12.15.17

There has been a consistent dialogue as of lately about net neutrality, and how the FCC has decided to repeal it. If you're like me, constantly overwhelmed by talk of new domestic and international affairs, you may not know at all what net neutrality is, and or what the independent agency known as the Federal Communications Commission regulates.


Have no fear, I'm here to give you a brief analysis and historical review of what net neutrality is, and how it came to be. In principle, net neutrality is a guideline for internet service providers, or ISPs, essentially stating that they operate in a manner that Save the Internet describes as, "preserving our right to communicate freely on the internet." The rules under net neutrality ensure that ISPs are not biased in what they prioritize showing on the internet. It prohibits blocking, bandwidth throttling, and paid prioritization which leads to the creation of fast and slow lanes based upon those who pay, and everyone else; all things that would dismantle the open internet that we have today. The history of net neutrality and the openness of the internet is a rather back and forth, long, and complex one; the term net neutrality first being coined back in 2003 by Columbia Law professor, Tim Wu (a timeline of net neutrality). Despite the years of debate, action and inaction, in 2015 activists pressured the FCC to adopt net neutrality laws under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, establishing the free and open internet we have all had access to over the past few years.
To the common man, or everyday citizen, net neutrality probably does not seem like a divisive issue at all. So why is it something that the FCC has now decided to take away? This can be pinpointed to the arrival of the Trump administration and the president's pick for FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, an attorney who was formerly involved with Verizon (an ISP - shocking). With the FCC dominated by Republican leadership alike Pai, he has been able to come in and push for an end to the Obama era classification of large ISPs as "common carriers" which forced them to take a vow of neutrality, un-authorizing the prioritization of certain web services.


Pai has often taken a lighthearted approach to addressing a potential internet without neutrality regulations saying, "You can still drive memes into the ground and everything else you ever did on the internet." Maybe you chuckled, but despite the guaranteed presence of memes, funny cat videos, and streaming services which allow us to "Netflix and chill," it's not all shits and giggles. Will we be subjected to slower internet when we want to gain access to a news source that isn't preferred by our ISP, will we pay a fee when we want to access our favorite site (and let's make note of the fact that our ISPs already charge us high enough premiums, and many people don't have a choice in their broadband provider either)? So maybe the potential damage done to our pockets isn't all that funny, and no Mac user wants to see the spinning pinwheel of death anymore than they already have to.

Asides from a slower and more expensive version of the internet, there are some ethical implications of the potential removal of net neutrality that may face us. Many supporters of net neutrality see it as a mechanism of free speech, a right belonging to the people. Free and open internet has been a large factor in the rise of innovation. Small businesses, and everyday people have been able to reach the masses by way of the internet and share their new concepts and ideas with the world. The open internet has also been a vital tool for marginalized groups helping them to share their opinions, organize and mobilize as a collective whole. The removal of net neutrality has the ability to make the opinions of these already marginalized people just a bit more inferior, and the voices of everyday people just a bit smaller, how can that be fair?


Today, the FCC voted to repeal the current net neutrality regulation, however the fight to keep the internet free, accessible, and open is still not over. The issue will likely move to the courts where advocacy groups will challenge the decision, and eventually it will go to Congress. If you enjoy having an unbiased and open internet that isn't monopolized by a few large ISPs, contact your representatives and advocate for net neutrality; at the end of the day, the way the web operates effects us all.