Remember when Al Gore invented the internet, and it was referred to as the “information superhighway”? Like Al Gore, the term was awkward and oh-so-90s, but it remains an apt metaphor. The internet is very much like an interstate. The road is built and maintained by internet service providers (ISPs) like Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast.
Historically, internet users could take any “exit” they liked. The off-ramp to Google was in the same condition as the off-ramp to your cousin’s blog. ISPs were required to treat all websites the same, regardless of size. This principle is known as “net neutrality.” As a result, startup companies could challenge long-established ones and beat them on the merits of their service alone.
But our technology’s outpaced our laws. Currently, your landline phone provider must abide by non-discrimination rules, but your cable provider need not. The internet has complicated things, since you can get it over your phone line, cable wire, or satellite. So the question has been which rules will the internet follow: will it be treated more like a phone service (seen in the law as a public good) or will it be treated more like a cable service (seen in the law more as a luxury)?
The idea of “net neutrality” was created as a stop-gap measure until that question was answered. But due to years of lobbying by ISPs and by recent decisions by the telecom-friendly FCC and the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, the net neutrality principle has been gutted.
This means the rules of the internet are changing quickly, and they have enormous consequences for how we communicate to each other in the coming century.
Let’s return to the highway metaphor. Imagine that each off-ramp has a gate at the top, and the businesses on the other side have to pay Comcast a fee for traffic to reach them. Additionally, some exit ramps may be left in disrepair, slowing or stopping traffic altogether, in a deliberate attempt by Comcast to encourage users to take another exit. Comcast, for example, would slow your ability to watch CBS’ “NCIS” online, but it would ensure lightning-fast ability to watch any NBC show you chose. (Comcast bought NBC Universal recently.)
In the absence of net neutrality, and in the absence of Congress reclassifying broadband ISPs as common carriers (like a phone company), the free market would no longer determine who succeeds and who fails on the internet. ISPs would do the choosing, to their profit, but to society’s detriment.
The internet is no longer a luxury; it is a public utility, just like water, telephone, or electric service. And our laws should regulate the internet in the same manner to protect consumers. Call Mike McIntyre, Richard Burr, and Kay Hagan, and tell them you support reclassification of broadband ISPs.