This month the Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal regulations that require internet providers to allow all websites to access the same quality of connection. These regulations, put in place to protect a principal of equal access, dubbed “net neutrality,” have been in place for decades but only recently have emerged in the public discourse as the quality of internet technology has improved. The central argument of the net neutrality debate is a question of whether or not access to the internet should be treated like a utility — electricity, water, telephone service — where everyone plugs into the same stream of service; or if companies should be able to tier the service so that websites can pay for a basic connection or pay more for a faster one.
The FCC’s decision to roll back its regulations, thus giving providers control over which sites have access to the fastest connections, is concerning for a number of reasons, according to Gabriela Marcu, PhD, an assistant professor in the College of Computing and Informatics’ Center for the Study of Libraries, Information & Society. Marcu studies the way people interact with technology and how that technology can affect the way they lead their lives. She recently provided some additional insight into how the elimination of net neutrality could have a ripple effect across society.
The concept of net neutrality refers to the idea that internet providers should allow their customers equal access to all content online — basically, that providers like Verizon and Comcast should be “neutral” in how they present content. How are providers able to limit or control access to content?
The concern is that providers will create “fast lanes” and “slow lanes,” forcing companies like Netflix, Google, and Facebook to pay up in order to ensure that all of us get what we want from the internet at the high speeds we enjoy. Providers could also block content they don’t want you to see, or give preferential treatment to block out their competitors.
Protecting net neutrality means maintaining an even playing field and ensuring that all content is treated equally. When we stream movies, look up information, and scroll through our social media feeds, we want fast and reliable access to all of our content. We also want to have a choice in which websites we use to access our content. Without net neutrality, big companies will have an easier time monopolizing their market, startups and entrepreneurs will have a harder time competing and we, as consumers, will not have equal access to content online.
Is this something that users would immediately notice?
Not necessarily. Some websites or apps may become slower and any change in costs would be passed down to consumers. In the future, you may have to pay for access to Facebook the way you pay for access to HBO. But another risk is simply having big companies negotiate and decide what you get access to and what you don’t. In a time when we need more transparency about where the content we consume comes from, we may get less and less control.
What are some examples of how this is happening or has already happened?
A few years ago, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon were developing a payment system to compete with Google Wallet. It originally went under the unfortunate name of Isis, and was then renamed Softcard. For a time, these providers blocked access to Google Wallet to pave the way for their own Softcard, until Google acquired the Softcard’s intellectual property and essentially shut down the app. As a result, the three providers put their support behind Google Wallet and its successor, Android Pay.
How has the evolution of internet technology affected our perception of the internet and the threshold to access?
The internet has always been open. Many of us remember creating our first websites, because anyone could write some code and put up a website. Web 2.0 then empowered content creators who no longer had to write code, giving them platforms like YouTube and Blogger so they could share their music, makeup tips, or opinions. Facebook started as a small website to connect Harvard students. Google started as a research project by two Stanford PhD students. Although they are now large and powerful companies, they had humble beginnings with the opportunity to grow because anyone could access these websites and start using them. Users had the freedom to choose between MySpace or Facebook, Google or AskJeeves, without any restrictions or costs. For a time, the best user experience won out and open competition was good for users.
How does this compare to other technologies that we now believe everyone should have access to?
The “digital divide” has long been discussed because of the gap created between those who have access to the internet and those who don’t. Like clean water and electricity, access to the internet has become an issue of economic and social equity. Many people who cannot afford a home can still afford a smartphone and this technology connects them to job opportunities and resources that can help them find a way out of homelessness. Equal access to the internet is a powerful social equalizer.
Interestingly, the United States went through a similar history with radio, though we have lost sight of this technology as a medium for sharing our own content. Radio is by and large free to access, but we as users no longer have control over what content is broadcast (other than donating to our local NPR station). Unless we call into a morning show or become the next Ryan Seacrest, we don’t get to share much of ourselves on the radio, the way we do on social media. Without net neutrality, the internet could become more like radio.
How might the FCC’s decision affect the type and quality of information on the internet?
The information available on the internet will be less democratic. Much like TV networks and movie executives, providers like Verizon and Comcast have the potential to become very powerful in controlling what the rest of us get to have access to, and at what cost. Because providers would be able to block any content they want, there is also a significant threat to free speech. Most people now get their news from the internet, and—for better or worse—share their opinions online. As much as we may not like internet trolls, we believe in their right to free speech in this country.
How might this decision have ripple effects outside of the U.S.?
Silicon Valley has global influence, and we should feel a sense of responsibility. Given our leadership role with innovation on the internet, not to mention democracy and free speech, it’s disappointing that we are not setting a good example for net neutrality. The U.K is negotiating its own loopholes in regulation on net neutrality, which will be informative to watch. We would also do well to learn from understanding what has unfolded in countries where there is no net neutrality, like Portugal and Guatemala.
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