The Net Neutrality Debate
The ongoing dispute over the future of cyberspace has engaged everyone from celebrities to entrepreneurs to the President of the United States. The stakes are high; the Internet has completely changed the way people live their lives, impacting the way you shop, make dinner reservations, and pay bills. It has spawned entire industries, including social media, IT services, and the blogosphere. Many of these aspects of the online world may be impacted if net neutrality is undermined. If you’re wondering why so many people are talking about this topic lately, here is an overview of the arguments on both sides.
Net Neutrality: An Overview
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is responsible for enforcing laws concerning the way the internet functions. The issue of net neutrality comes down to whether ISPs are classified by the FCC as “common carriers” or as “information services.” If classified as the former, providers would be required to provide their service to everyone without discrimination, the same way that utility companies do. If deemed to be the latter, they would be free to engage in a practice known as “paid prioritization,” by which companies could pay ISPs additional fees in exchange for faster, more reliable service to and from their sites.
Paid prioritization would create an incentive for companies to pay to ensure faster service on their sites, which is fine if you’re a huge, well-established company with deep pockets – but much more problematic if you’re a smaller, start-up company trying to compete. Net neutrality evens the playing field for companies that do business online, encouraging competition and innovation that ultimately benefit consumers. It also eliminates the possibility that ISPs might favor certain content by slowing down or blocking other options. With net neutrality, all content is treated as equal.
The main opponents to net neutrality are, not surprisingly, the Internet service providers. Their arguments hinge on the idea that they should have the option of charging more for providing service to companies that use up a large amount of the available bandwidth. Without this option, they say, they have no reason to maintain and upgrade the infrastructure that allows those high-bandwidth sites to function. They also argue that government should stay out of the business of regulating commerce.
The Bottom Line
It is unlikely that the debate about net neutrality will be resolved any time soon. The FCC is reluctant to make a final decision about whether to reclassify Internet access as a public utility until possible legal challenges to such an action can be examined carefully. Whatever the decision is, the FCC wants to know that once it is made, the courts will not reverse it. However, even a final decision on reclassification is unlikely to end this debate.