Net Neutrality is one of many serious issues regarding freedom of expression in the United States. Currently, the debate mainly revolves around President Trump’s appointed FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. Controversies surrounding Pai have escalated over his views regarding regulations adopted by the FCC in 2015 – under then chairman Tom Wheeler. Some of the criticisms laid upon Pai are ranging. They vary from the more accurate claims of allowing internet service provider’s to discriminate against particular content through paid prioritization; and to less credible claims of being outright against a free and open internet for the purpose of fomenting corporate greed (a claim championed by those who perhaps falsely or hyperbolically scapegoat Trump himself as a catalyst of looming censorship).
The truth however leans towards the former, as the lifting of these regulations would in theory allow companies to discriminate against the data of certain websites. This seems like a troubling predicament, but in practice may not be as dire as perceived, given the nature of significant market forces within the ISP industry, as well as existing regulatory provisions outside the 2015 regulations.
The regulations enacted in 2015 sought to eliminate any discriminatory practices against various sites, and treat the internet as a utility. This is enforced through Title II of the 1934 Communications Act. That piece of legislation centralized the authority of various aspects of communications, and allowed universal access of platforms to all U.S citizens without discrimination – for purposes of “national defense and promoting public safety of life and property.” This was initially meant to be applied to radio and telephone companies as a way of mitigating monopolies.
According to Pai, the application of the Communications Act to the internet would disincentive companies from wanting to build out better internet access around the country, as well as better services to consumers. He sees the 2015 regulations as a largely unnecessary action, given the FCC (which was born out of the Communications Act) already has significant abilities to regulate.
Pai in no way wants to explicitly foster censorship or restrict various internet platforms to consumers. His approach to this is issue is free market based, seeking a competitive and growing environment for providers at the benefit of both consumers and industry growth. There are currently 4,462 service providers operating in the United States. Pai’s goal is to build upon this diverse market share by allowing freer competition to flourish; and reject regulations that ween out smaller companies and disincentivize new players from entering the market. This is an approach which should ultimately benefit consumers, the thought being that prices will come down as a wider array of services become available.
Companies could in theory offer discriminatory services to various websites for a variety of reasons. However, given the significant market share which exists in the industry, this action would not be in the best interest of a single provider, as consumers could just switch to one of many alternatives in the market which offer better services at an equal to or lesser price. The same would apply to providers who would want to mine and sell their user’s data to third parties (an issue which seems to have little relevance considering the nature of the National Security Agency – and revelations of their practices in recent years).
Detractors of this argument claim Pai’s actions will have an opposite effect. They propose that service providers could in theory debilitate access to sites by selling special fees to certain internet companies. But in the modern internet age, this claim does not hold true, as major companies like Google, Facebook and Netflix already use internet fast lanes through deals made with major service providers like Verizon and Comcast.
The regulations passed in 2015 essentially do nothing to fix the problems they claim exist. Making the internet apply to the Communications Act would be a way of ensuring more centralized control through its categorization as a public utility. This is an endeavour the government should not be partaking in, given the nature of the internet as a free and open tool for accessing information. By the government seeking more power to regulate its administration in a centralized capacity, then it could easily decide what data can and can’t be accessed, without the safety net of a free market. This is of course a major conflict of interest, laying the framework for the government to decide what can and can’t be accessed – something which pertains to their own regard for the selective dissemination of information. Critics of Pai conveniently do no contemplate this, and instead claim censorship will be applied by private companies in a market environment, and not by the stand alone approach of the federal government.
Pai has said that if problems do occur through service providers discriminating against certain websites or content creators, then the powers of the FCC can be used to fix them. The FCC has the authority to apply light touch regulations, reminiscent of the Clinton administration, to fix market failures. However, this scenario of selective censorship is highly unlikely, as it would be foolish to do so in a highly competitive market environment that centers on customer service. Consumer protection law would also be applied if these actions occurred.
Those claiming Trump and Pai want to end freedom on the internet suggest that there is a ploy by corporations to undermine victimized consumers and content creators. In reality, Pai simply wants to ensure that the ISP industry will continue to grow through free market competition, and that censorship and data discrimination is detracted through consumer demand – something which could not be as feasible with the presence of heavy centralization.
Many on the political left decry Pai’s actions, failing to comprehend that all he wants to do is lift recent regulations which do nothing toward their stated goal. The massive disconnect between what people are upset about and what net neutrality actually means is significant. It can be somewhat characterized in recent events where protesters have lifted signs listing preferred websites they wish to be banned, while at the same time calling for ‘information equality’. Those who exercise such ignorance should not be setting the table for policy discussion, especially when displayed in such a hypercritical manner.
Net Neutrality is the belief that all data on the internet should be treated the same without discrimination. The greatest threat to this idea is not through individual companies competing against one another. Instead, censorship is more likely to crop up in in an environment where a singular entity has the power to control information and how people are able to access it. That is why it should be in everyone’s best interest to keep the internet free by preventing it from being centralized into the hands of those who seek to arbitrarily regulate its content without fear of financial loss or consequence.