Why I Care About Net Neutrality
Posted by Jon Walton on Feb 2nd 2018
Like the vast majority of the American public, I am proud to say that I support “Net Neutrality.” A recent poll showed that 83% of all Americans favor Net Neutrality and disapprove of the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC’s) recent decision to repeal its protections. Hundreds of organizations, including the ACLU, the American Library Association, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and a myriad of businesses (including Google, Facebook, Amazon, and many others) have publicly come out against the recent FCC ruling. Thousands of small businesses signed on to a letter to the FCC opposing this change in rules. Even Burger King has taken a stance, releasing a satirical ad showing what would happen if “neutrality” were removed from hamburger delivery — and of course the public benefit of an open Internet extends far beyond mere fast food delays!
To truly understand Net Neutrality, however, it’s important to look beyond the hype. The history of this issue stretches back for decades. Since the Communications Act of 1934, the U.S. has classified telephone companies as “common carriers,” meaning they have to provide indiscriminate public access for all users of their networks. Companies can (and of course do) charge a fee for use of a network, but can’t regulate content going through the network or discriminate against certain traffic in any way. The idea was that providing a utility to connect all residents in the country to a communications platform was in everyone’s interest and hence had the economic characteristics of a “public good” (meaning that it was in all in our benefits that all other people are connected to this network).
Many decades later, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 amended this law to exempt Internet service providers from being common carriers. However, most providers continued to act like they were anyway; the Internet was in its nascence and all parties had a direct interest in encouraging its use. After the turn of the century, concerns arose that some network providers would charge more for (or otherwise manage) different users of their networks — this was perhaps precipitated by the growing demand for high-bandwidth content such as video. In 2010, the FCC ruled that U.S. broadband providers should be treated as common carriers, a ruling that was later affirmed by a U.S. federal court. This common carrier status for broadband Internet providers became known as Net Neutrality. It’s important to note that the Internet is additionally becoming a medium for voice, so the line between an Internet service and phone service had become significantly blurred – another reason why the common carrier framework was still relevant.
However, in March 2017, under a new administration, the FCC announced plans to dismantle its Net Neutrality rules. Just nine months later, it voted to repeal the restrictions that prevented broadband providers from blocking websites or charging for higher-quality service. This meant that high speed Internet delivery would no longer be regulated like a common carrier public utility. Though hailed by network providers, the ruling was largely criticized by consumers and businesses. Opponents worried that carriers, who have de facto monopolies or duopolies in most regions, would be able to create Internet “fast lanes” and “slow lanes.” The Internet Association President & CEO Michael Beckerman summed up that concern: “There is little competition in the broadband service market — more than half of all Americans have no choice in their provider — so consumers will be forced to accept ISP interference in their online experience.” This could harm consumers with higher prices, as well as dampen innovation and competition as new companies might find it too expensive to compete with established businesses. In addition, any ability for a carrier to block traffic on its network based on its source or on its specific content is a dangerous precedent – it could create serious privacy issues and place a private company in the role of potential censor. The FCC and broadband providers argued that Net Neutrality regulations weren’t necessary because of the growing competition among access providers. Additionally, they contended that removing this regulation would allow them to better provide a menu of services at different price points to meet an array of customer needs.
Most people, including those in local governments, have yet to be convinced. Over a dozen states — ranging from the traditionally liberal to the traditionally conservative — are considering laws or regulations to enforce Net Neutrality for any carrier doing business in or holding contracts with that state. California is one of those states considering new laws as two separate bills have been introduced to use California’s regulatory powers to prevent Internet service providers from engaging in practices inconsistent with net neutrality. One of those bills is SB 822, co-authored by Assemblymember Kevin Mullin who represents District 22, which covers a large portion of San Mateo County. However, the FCC believes that states don’t have the right to preempt its regulatory power, so this issue is certain to spend some time in the courts before being settled.
As the Chief Information Officer of the County of San Mateo, I believe very strongly that technology is critical in making connections — including the need to better connect County residents with their government. Some of our initiatives include the launch of SMC Public WiFi, a series of public wireless access sites aimed at helping address the significant digital divide between those with high speed Internet access and those with slow or no access. We are also leading other regional connectivity solutions, including building a multi-jurisdictional fiber optic network to be shared and leveraged by cities, school districts, and other government agencies across the County.
I believe that high-speed Internet networks are the 21st century equivalent of roads—another “public good” that provides benefits to all residents. Other countries as well as the United Nations have deemed Internet Access to be a basic human right, with freedom of expression and not based on what people can afford. Like roads or basic telephone service before it, the Internet cannot be treated like any other commercial product or service. Net Neutrality is therefore critical for promoting innovation with new ideas and free-flowing communication, spurring broad-based economic development, and supporting our entire community. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that Net Neutrality is even essential to supporting democracy itself. It ensures residents can be given equal, non-preferential voices to participate in the democratic process and become more engaged with the government that serves them. Government should ensure that the U.S. is a leader in creating a broadband wired and wireless network to bring high-speed connectivity to every community and equally accessible by all. Let’s not exacerbate the digital divide; let’s bridge it.