Breaking the Cycle: The Power of Net Neutrality

“So what is the FCC doing today? Quite simply, we are restoring the light-touch framework that has governed the Internet for most of its existence. We’re moving from Title II to Title I. Wonkier it cannot be.” – FCC Chairman Ajit Pai on repealing net neutrality rules.

On December 14th 2017, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to repeal the Obama administration era internet regulations that are commonly known as Net Neutrality rules. These rules essentially required internet service providers (ISP’s) to make internet access equal for all consumers, meaning that they couldn’t charge higher fees for better quality internet access. These rules also prevented ISP’s from giving preferential treatment to certain websites over others.

ajit pai

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. Courtesy of Gizmodo.

This announcement was troubling to Americans across the country and inspired a litany of think pieces and public discourse about what the implications of this repeal will be for internet-based companies and users. In January, several web-based startups, like Etsy, and tech lobbying groups announced that they would be suing the FCC. In addition, democrats in congress have introduced a resolution to reverse the FCC’s decision and reinstate the former net neutrality rules. So, is all of this concern justified? Should people be this worried about the repeal of Net Neutrality rules?

Tim Wu author of The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires believes that we should be. According to Wu, who actually coined the term Net Neutrality, the idea of Net Neutrality is what has allowed the internet to sustain being an open system for most of its life. Wu believes that the information economy is subject to what he calls the Cycle, which he defines as: the idea that all information industries have started with a period of open access and innovation that eventually turned into a closed environment where a small number of “information empires” control the entire industry. By Wu’s estimation in 2010, the internet has so far escaped the closed phase of the Cycle, solely because of the power of Net Neutrality.

According to Wu, the power of net neutrality is so immense that it was able to subdue the impact of one of the most significant mergers in internet history, that between AOL and Time Warner (TW). In the late 1990’s AOL was a leading ISP that provided dial up access to its customers, and TW was the most powerful of the media conglomerates, owning an immense library of premium content.

Gerald Levin of Time Warner, left, with Stephen Case of America Online, announcing A.O.L.'s $165 billion deal to acquire Time Warner in January 2000.

Gerald Levin of TW, left, with Stephen Case of AOL, right, Announcing Merger. Courtesy of Fortune.

AOL came of age in the early 1990’s, before most of the internet and acted as the platform by which people could reach the rest of the web. This meant that AOL was a “walled garden” that could control the content that was available to its users, allowing it to dictate access (Wu 262). Therefore, if the merger between AOL and TW had gone as planned, the majority of internet users at the time would’ve only had access to TW owned content, allowing the two companies to monopolize the web. Thankfully, the principle of net neutrality, which is built into the architecture of the internet, prevented this monopolization of the web from taking place.

earlygoogle

Early Google. Courtesy of The Telegraph.

Net neutrality defused the power of this merger in two ways: first, many ISP’s switched to broadband, which is much faster than dial up, by the early 2000’s; and second, with broadband came search engines like Yahoo and Google, which allowed people to travel unrestricted to any part of the web (Wu 265). This meant that AOL’s dominance over internet access and ability to create a walled garden and control content, the entire advantage of its merger with TW, was dashed to pieces by the openness of the internet. Had the merger gone as planned, the internet would’ve entered the same closed and monopolized phase of the Cycle as every other information industry that preceded it, and the web that we know today would not exist.

Recognizing the immense value of net neutrality, the FCC under the Obama administration put rules in place to ensure the continued existence of this principle. Now that the FCC under the Trump administration has overturned these rules, essentially allowing ISP’s to do whatever they want, the threat of the internet entering the closed phase of the Cycle is greater than it has ever been before.

In Wu’s words, the internet has become, “our key means of conveyance, the “common medium” of our national life and economy,” thus the preservation of equal access to this common medium is an essential right (Wu 285). The repeal of net neutrality rules opens the door for ISP’s to take away this right, monopolizing the internet and molding it in whatever way they see fit. To this point Wu says:

“Put most simply, net neutrality is what prevents the telephone and cable industry from killing Google, Amazon, Wikipedia, blogs, or anything else that might incur their displeasure.” (Wu 286)

We could end up seeing ISP’s bundling internet services the same way that they bundle cable packages, charging premiums for varying kinds and amounts of services. This is a practice that is already taking place in countries where are no net neutrality rules, like Portugal. This will hurt both internet users and web native businesses that have predicated their entire business models on the principle of a free and equal access web environment.

portugal_internet bundles

Internet Bundling in Portugal: Courtesy of boingboing.net

Will ISP’s actually abuse their power in an era of no net neutrality rules? At this moment, it’s impossible to be certain about anything, yet the possibilities of how much control ISP’s now have is endless and frightening.


Works Cited

Wu, Tim. The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires. Atlantic, 2012.

 

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