When starting a platform with the purpose of disseminating information (my thoughts) and interacting with users, a platform that heavily relies on the idea of a free and open internet, there is, I think, no better place to start then with a brief discussion of what is net neutrality. It is especially relevant now as the U.S. has repealed their net neutrality regulations last December (an issue I will probably talk about a lot as many states and their citizens continue to fight for their internet rights). Even in Canada, a country that I’m proud to say has strong internet freedom, net neutrality is currently under attack from a coalition of telecommunication giants. Understanding the issue is ever more important as we come to increasingly rely on the internet in our daily lives.
Net neutrality, in its most basic description, is freedom of the internet. It is a concept that means everyone has equal access to the internet no matter their purpose. If someone wants access their email, research a topic, stream videos, or write a blog post, they can. If someone wants to start a website selling their products or providing information about their service, they have complete freedom to do so. As long as the content of a website is legal, no third party can bar access to that website, be it through excess fees, artificial load times, or any other method. This makes a free and open internet the most free and competitive market place the world has ever seen.
Net neutrality is essential to keeping that market place truly free. Without it an Internet Service Providers (ISP) can determine which websites their consumers can visit. They could speed up access to websites they favour while slowing down or outright blocking the connection to websites they oppose. They could bar users’ access to certain websites unless that website pays a hefty fee ( *cough cough* bribe) or directly charges users a higher rate to access a popular website. You wanna check your gmail? That’s part of the Internet Plus Package and will cost you an extra five bucks a month. How about Netflix? That’s only available on the Supreme Internet Package which will run you an additional twenty.
Imagine that the ISP is the roadway between your house and whatever stores you want to visit. With net neutrality, you can get in your car and drive to the store no problem. Without net neutrality, the ISP could force you towards stores that they favour – stores who paid the fees for increased traffic – by putting hefty tolls or heavy construction on roads that lead elsewhere; why pay an extra $20 or sit for an hour in slow moving traffic to get to Store B when you can quickly and cheaply drive to Store A. Store A could even charge more, but it’s still cheaper for you than the fees it takes to go elsewhere.
Without net neutrality the internet would no longer be a free market place, but rather highly regulated. The twist is that instead of being regulated by a government accountable to its people, the internet would be regulated by corporations who are accountable to their shareholders. The governing principle of the internet would no longer be a free and open marketplace where all could compete equally. Instead profit maximization would become the law of the land. And since fees tend to flow downstream, consumers would bare the brunt of the costs.
You can probably see how harmful this would be to competition and to the free market. Stores wouldn’t compete in an effort to garner consumer’s business, they would converse with ISPs to gain favourable traffic conditions. That says nothing about the increased barriers to new entrants to the market: how could a local corner store hope to pay an ISP anything near what the behemoth Store A can afford.
ISPs charging fees to content providers is not just a thought experiment of what might happen without proper net neutrality regulations. It happened prior to the introduction of net neutrality laws in the U.S. Thanks to a lawsuit by the New York Attorney General the public has been given a plethora of internal emails from Time Warner Cable (TWC; now re-branded Spectrum), wherein TWC was artificially slowing down consumers’ access to content providers like Netflix unless those content providers paid extra.
While the issues to the free market are important, something of far greater weight to consider is how a lack of net neutrality would affect freedom of speech. This comes into play because without net neutrality ISPs can block websites at their will. Let’s take the example of me writing a blog post criticizing Bell. Under Canada’s current net neutrality laws Bell could not legally prevent anyone from reading that post. But if there were no net neutrality regulations Bell would be within its rights to block all Bell users from accessing that blog post, or even my entire website. They could force search engines to not display any results critical of Bell so that only users of different ISPs (Telus, Rodgers, Shaw, etc) could see those posts.
Let’s take that example a bit further. Perhaps a politician makes some promises to ISPs should he win the election (a favourable tax law or something like that). That ISP could influence what its consumers know about that politician by blocking all critical articles. Most people absorb a lot of news from what’s floating around on their Facebook news feed, and that can greatly influence their opinions (as the Russian hacking of the 2016 Presidential election demonstrates). If that information is missing because an ISP blocked it then voters will be misinformed come election day.
The internet is essential to the way we communicate in the modern world. It’s how we connect with friends and family. It’s the place we go for news and updates. It is how we express and use our voice. If we are going to keep those voices free and powerful, then strong net neutrality regulations are essential.