Mason weighs in on open web debate

This story was originally published in the March 30 issue of Fourth Estate.

On Feb. 26, the Federal Communications Commission voted in favor of net neutrality, which prohibited Internet Service Providers from charging higher costs for faster high-speed Internet.

The FCC defined net neutrality as a commitment to “protect and maintain open, uninhibited access to legal online content without broadband Internet access providers being allowed to block, impair, or establish fast/slow lanes to lawful content.”

Net neutrality essentially ensures that so-called ‘telecommunications giants’ such as Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner, Cox and Charter, cannot charge higher prices for faster Internet service and create Internet “fast lanes” for certain content. The American Civil Liberties Union described Internet fast lanes in this way: “Imagine if the phone company could mess with your calls every time you tried to order pizza from Domino’s, because Pizza Hut is paying them to route their calls first.”

Although net neutrality has been a topic of discussion in the United States since 1996, the most recent debate began in April 2014, when the FCC announced they were considering allowing Internet service providers to charge higher rates for faster service. In May 2014, the FCC announced that they were considering two options: allowing ISPs to charge customers more for faster Internet service, and the net neutrality option, which would prohibit ISPs from charging more for faster service.

In 1996, when Clinton updated the 1934 Communications Act to include the Internet in an attempt to keep the Internet a space where large corporations would be on equal footing with small businesses and entrepreneurs, it was the first time the act had been updated since its creation. The 1934 Communications Act, also referred to as Title II, classified telephone lines as a public utility to end AT&T’s monopoly over its customers. This is what the FCC is trying to prevent with net neutrality.

According to the FCC, who refers to net neutrality as ‘open Internet,’ net neutrality means “innovators can develop products and services without asking for permission.” It allows for Internet users to enjoy legal content without worrying that ISPs are slowing down their connection.

The ACLU took it further, saying that if the FCC had not ruled in favor of net neutrality, higher paying customers would receive faster Internet service as well as other considerations. In their campaign to keep the Internet unregulated, they told Internet users that telecommunications companies would monitor their private information.

“When we send or receive data over the Internet, we expect those companies to transfer that data from one end of the network to the other. Period. We don’t expect them to analyze or manipulate it,” the ACLU stated.

Mason students have reacted favorably to the FCC’s decision. Mason junior Leland Powell, a computer science major, is one of them.

“The FCC supporting net neutrality is a really positive move for the Internet as a whole, because it allows for small businesses to compete, as well as allowing independent artists to have greater freedom and it limits the amount of power Internet companies have over the populations,” Powell said.

Although Powell supports net neutrality, he is still willing to admit that there are problems with the telecommunications companies that a vote could not fix.

“There are still issues with Internet companies and the power they have, such as monopolies in certain areas, such as certain areas can only get service from Cox or Time Warner,” Powell said. “Due to a lack of competition, prices skyrocket without free market to keep it in check. Many movements have started to pick away at the monopolies in certain areas, such as Google Fiber and various groups campaigning against it.”

Groups such as Google Fiber are working to provide Internet as a public utility, like water or electricity. The town of Chattanooga, Tenn. has been providing Internet service to its citizens since 2013.

“It makes sense to give everyone Internet because it’s turning into a necessity, people are turning to technology. Which is really sad, that it’s out there with water, and other stuff like that,” said Kristen Osteen, a health, fitness and recreation research major.

“I want Google Fiber here,” stated Mason sophomore Nate Zeller. “I’ve never used it, but it was posted in a science journal I usually read, and they were talking about how fast Google Fiber was compared to the Internet speeds we usually get out here.”

Zeller, a psychology major, also agrees with the FCC vote. He also has met people on the other side of the debate.

“There’s usually that disparity,” Zeller stated, “I know that people my age by default are for that decision, but anyone who has a well-paying job will probably be against it.”

Internet streaming companies, like Amazon Prime, YouTube and Netflix are pleased with the outcome. They have had to pay telecommunications companies for the amount of content they deliver to subscribers. According to the annual Global Internet Phenomena Report, Netflix accounts for 39.1 percent of Internet traffic in North America in the evening hours. The outcome of the FCC vote may allow streaming companies to cease paying telecommunications giants for the amount of Internet traffic they occupy.

Some of the more notable opposition of net neutrality are the major cable companies, and Republicans in Congress have also been particularly vocal. Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, was featured in a TIME Magazine article saying that he was against net neutrality, and that the idea of regulating the Internet using principles from 1934 is “crazy.”

Brent Skorup is a research fellow in the Technology Policy Program at the Mercatus Center at Mason. He was interviewed by CNBC Asia on Feb. 26, and discussed the FCC’s vote.

When asked about ISPs providing faster service to customers using Internet sites that they had made a deal with or had an existing contract with, Skorup described this as a “worst case scenario,” and also said that the Internet has never been truly neutral.

He also stated that net neutrality does not create competition between ISPs, which many financial analysts and economists say is the answer to speeding up Internet service in the United States, whose internet is already slower and more expensive than the rest of the developed world’s, according to an article in TIME Magazine.

The article picked apart the new regulations, saying that while the new regulations prohibit ISPs from blocking sites and enforcing paid prioritization, the article stated that there have been no instances of any ISP doing this in the first place, according to financial analyst Dan Rayburn.

Mason student John O’Reilly, an economics major, is another person who is not so sure about the outcome in the future, especially since he believes that the issue hasn’t been explained clearly enough to the general public.

“Most reporters can’t get their questions answered clearly enough to inform readers correctly, so I can’t blame people for not knowing about it when it’s convoluted enough so that it’s difficult to become informed,” O’Reilly said.

O’Reilly added that he thinks net neutrality will negatively affect the telecommunications industry, and that while he believes that government deregulation is a good thing, he is unsure exactly about who is regulating the industry, and what their plan to do this will be.

Those who oppose net neutrality say that the fight did not end with the FCC’s vote, but that it is only beginning.

Photo courtesy of Ministerio TIC Colombia. Creative Commons License. No changes made. Some rights reserved.