Unless you’ve been living under a rock or without Internet access, by now you have already heard that the FCC voted 3-2 to overturn a piece of Obama-era legislation known as Net Neutrality.
Since then, much has been written about it and a quick Google search will help you find what others have already said. Defenders of dismantling Net Neutrality, such as FCC chairman, Ajit Pai have championed this move as a victory for business and the free market, alleging that Net Neutrality overregulated the telecommunications sector. Others mistakenly believe Net Neutrality represented government censorship of the Internet. Critics of this recent decision by the FCC say this move may spell the Internet as we know it and prevent us from the free and open access to information and content we previously enjoyed.
Following this debate, one thing has become abundantly clear. There seems to be a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about what this issue is all about. Of course, that doesn’t stop some people from weighing in with their opinions. And, the rest of America, not really understanding the nuances of the debate surrounding this issue, doesn’t really care or want to get involved. Sadly, they may only start to care once it’s too late and the equal opportunity the Internet provided us is gone.
First, a tiny bit of background to break things down for those of you who don’t wish to spend an hour wading through articles about the Net Neutrality debate. I apologize if much of the following is obvious to you. Feel free to scroll ahead. However, based on what I’ve been hearing and reading, a lot of this information is not obvious to many people.
In short, we can break down the entire Internet into two different kinds of companies — the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and the content providers or Internet businesses. ISPs are utility companies, or telcos, such as Optimum, Verizon, and Comcast that provide you with access to the Internet through the use broadband fiber optic cables which are physically installed in cities and towns.
Content providers are digital entities that exist online. They are Internet companies, such as Google, Twitter, and Netflix. These companies are websites, which you can only access if you have functioning Internet.
Since the Internet started, we have always taken for granted that we can access any website we want freely and easily as long as we have an Internet connection. Our Internet providers charge us for Internet usage, but they don’t charge us based on what websites or content we visit once we’re online. Nonetheless, there has always been a lingering fear that ISPs could eventually start to do so. Essentially, Net Neutrality was a preventative measure that legally protected consumers from this possibility.
Sadly, that has all been reversed with a 3-2 vote of the FCC despite a great deal of backlash from the public. Trump appointee Ajit Pai himself was a Verizon lawyer before he was made the chairman of the FCC. If that’s not a conflict of interest, then I don’t know what is!
If ISPs have the power to dictate to Internet companies and potentially block access to online content, that’s not true free market capitalism. Rather, telco conglomerates and large, powerful Internet corporations — the major players like Amazon and Google will have a monopoly. In fact, over 50 million American homes have access to only one Internet Service Provider. My neighborhood in Brooklyn only had one ISP — Optimum until a few years ago and now we can only choose between Optimum and Verizon (both shitty).
There has been much speculation about what the fallout will be after the FCC’s decision. Some don’t think ISPs will impose any additional restrictions, or at least not immediately. They argue that we had the Internet for a long time before 2015 when the Obama administration enacted Net Neutrality and we didn’t have any problems. Others fear that ISPs will eventually impose tiered pricing that charges you based on what you access and hides content behind paywalls, much like how you interact with television. Your Internet access will then be limited to “channels” and you’ll have to pay more to access things you previously could have accessed for free.
Still, others believe that whatever changes ISPs may eventually make are not likely to affect consumers directly. In other words, you’ll still be able to access Twitter, YouTube, online shopping, and your favorite free porn sites, but Internet companies that use up a lot of bandwidth, such as video streaming sites like Netflix may have to pay ISPs more for the privilege. However, this could mean that smaller, newer, or up-and-coming technology startups who don’t have the budget and connections to get behind whatever paywalls and hurdles the ISPs might impose will have a much harder time gaining access to the market.
When new startups and tech solutions lose the easy and direct access to consumers that the Internet currently provides, it will enable corporations to censor and monopolize our Internet experience, spelling the end of innovation, competition, and entrepreneurial pursuits.
The Internet is now the Middleman. It has been killing the Gatekeepers of old, such as mainstream media companies and large corporations by democratizing information and content distribution. Having a free and open Internet is crucial for society’s growth, education, and social mobility. The Internet is why today, a poor kid from Iowa with no connections can become a YouTube star with lucrative endorsement deals. The Internet is what can transform a single mother into a massive Instagram influencer or blogger with a wide following that translates into a successful business or side-hustle. Internet access exposes us to new ideas, alternative perspectives, and educational resources.
The Internet gives the power to the people. It is a tool that can start revolutions, raise money for a cause, provide a platform for voices to be heard, and help someone with little or no opportunities become known so that they will be able to compete in the marketplace. The Internet is the great equalizer of opportunity. Even with all its flaws — fake news, trolls, cyberbullying, and people spending more time on it than in the “real world,” a free and open Internet is preferable to the alternative.
And therein lies the crux of the issue. Ending Net Neutrality not only means the possibility of losing access to a free and open Internet. The real and dangerous consequence of dismantling Net Neutrality is that it could lead to the death of the American Dream.
So, what’s the solution?
Well, it’s absolutely insane to me that we call ourselves a democracy when a vote of 3-2 bureaucrats could completely screw all of us. Currently, some states and others are already filing to sue the FCC in an attempt to get this decision repealed. While I think this is a good first step, the only way to restore Net Neutrality and make sure it remains is to have Congress vote it into law. I urge you to contact your Congressperson today and urge them to overturn the FCC’s vote.