By Mona Malacane
If you have been holed up in your office for the past year, you may not know that three Telecom faculty members – Barbara Cherry, Julien Mailland, and Matt Pierce – have been deeply engaged in the net neutrality debate. If you have really been living under a rock, here is Wikipedia’s succinct definition of net neutrality: “the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication.”
I and several others grad students had the fortuitous luck to take T504: Introduction to Telecommunications Policy Studies with Barb last semester, during which a few big net neutrality developments occurred. Consequently, we had several days devoted to discussing these issues and the misconceptions/misnomers that are thrown around even by those who support net neutrality. Here are a few:
Reclassification of internet service under Title II will basically turn internet into a public utility.
Here the semantics allow for much obfuscation. The reality is that reclassification of internet service under Title II would allow the FCC to regulate it under common carriage law. While common carriage law also applies to many public utilities, the two should not be conflated. Here we are talking about the application of common carriage laws and not creation of a public utility per se. As per my T504 notes, common carriers must “serve upon reasonable request, without unreasonable discrimination, at just and reasonable rates, and with adequate care” (10/23/14). So when you hear “internet service should not be regulated like a public utility!” then you can say, “I agree, it should be regulated like a common carrier so that the provider of that service cannot unjustly discriminate against the service that I am already paying them for.” (Here is a good, clear description of Title II reclassification if you’re interested.)
This claim understandably made some headlines last year – it’s pretty quotable and catchy. But again, inaccurate for a few reasons. First, the FCC is an independent agency with powers granted to it by Congress, a separate branch of government than that of the President. While Obama can weigh in on the matter, any “action” he may take can be overridden by Congress. Second, net neutrality is directed at keeping the internet functioning like it always has since its inception. Third, I’m pretty sure we can all agree that the internet should not work at the speed of government, which I will hyperbolically liken to AOL dial up. I could barely play tetris on my grandpa’s dial-up Compaq desktop that literally weighed more than I did at 8 years old, let alone watch Netflix! But again, can we really compare data packets traveling through fiber optic cables to large departments of hundreds of people? And alternatively, if internet service providers could enforce paid prioritization wouldn’t that relegate some websites to “operate at the speed of government”? “No” to the first rhetorical question, and “maybe” to the second.
Net neutrality is unAmerican because it gives the government power to regulate the internet.
Kind of but not really. Net neutrality is actually more about regulating Internet service providers, not the internet. And let’s be honest, the government can already see everything we do on the internet. So can hackers, the people at Facebook, and the people at Snapchat. Net neutrality is about keeping parity among content providers in delivery of their content and not giving priority to data from a content provider who has the means to pay an extra fee (e.g. Netflix) over one who cannot (e.g. my mother’s small business website). In other words, net neutrality would keep giving my mother’s small business an equal opportunity as other larger businesses in the market, as opposed to applying an algorithm to discriminate between certain data packets from companies that have paid and deliver them faster than other data packets.