Clarifying the definition and issues of Net neutrality
To start with, then, the White House has described the principle of net neutrality in the following way:
“An entrepreneur’s fledgling company should have the same chance to succeed as established corporations, and that access to a high school student’s blog shouldn’t be unfairly slowed down to make way for advertisers with more money” (paragraph 1).
At the core of the principle of net neutrality is thus the idea that all content on the Internet should be accessible in a fully equitable way. This is not the same as defending against Internet censorship, like what happens in countries like China. Internet censorship bans people from using the Internet from accessing certain sites. Net neutrality is the practice of making the Internet’s underlying algorithms more equitable for all users.
When an Internet user is conducting a search, all content should ideally be subjected to the same algorithms, such that no particular content has a specific bias that gives it an advantage over any other content (aside from the variable of salience wired into the search algorithm itself).
Providing an example of Net neutrality
In principle, an amateur student’s blog must be accessible in fundamentally the same way as any other content on the Internet; and once an Internet user has accessed that content, he should be able to engage with that content in the same way that he would engage with any other content on the Internet.
This seems quite straightforward, to the point that one may well wonder what the real alternative to net neutrality could be. This is a complex question. On the one hand, it can be suggested that net neutrality is the status quo of how most people have experienced the Internet throughout their own lives.
For example, the American government does not condone censorship and most websites in the United States are not blocked from access in any way; and the Internet user is generally confident that he can access whatever online content he wants in an equitable way (i.e. that there would be no biases that would make it easier for him to access certain content and not other content).
In this sense, net neutrality has in fact been more or less the norm of most Internet users’ own experience, which would explain why the general public may become somewhat confused when it is raised as a specific political issue in its own right.
The myth of former neutrality
From another perspective, though, the argument can also be made that the net has never in fact been truly neutral. For example, Crowcroft has discussed several technical aspects of the very structure of the Internet that has always resulted in biases in favor of some content on the Internet and against other content. Crowcroft has framed this discussion in terms of not only the technologies that enable users to access the Internet but also to the kind of natural competition that has led to the dynamic growth and evolution of the Internet in the first place:
“The Internet’s evolution has thrived on differences that through one lens may appear as non-neutral while through another may appear as vigorous and healthy competition” (579).
So, while the Internet may appear neutral from the users’ perspective, it is also possible that there have been various factors in play all along that have prevented the Internet from ever having been a truly neutral space. In contemporary discussions of the subject, though, net neutrality would seem to refer simply to maintaining the level of neutrality to which Internet users have generally grown accustomed and not introducing any further mechanisms (and especially financial mechanisms) that disrupt this equilibrium of neutrality.
Recent developments in Internet equality
While America has held a firm belief censorship should be prevented, security has considerably changed the minds of most Americans, and censorship is becoming more welcomed. Government agencies are now considering regulating the Internet and providing easier rules on Net neutrality. Over the course of the last several months (in the year 2014), it would seem that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which is the governmental agency in charge of the regulation of the Internet and other communication channels, has been
“considering a plan that would allow some Internet providers to provide better access to some websites that pay a fee to reach users faster” (Electronic Frontier Foundation, paragraph 2).
This would fundamentally undermine the principle of net neutrality by enabling people who are willing to spend more money to have a greater chance of having their content seen on the Internet. Thus far, this has been forbidden by the regulations of the FCC; and if net neutrality is an important political issue at the present time, then it is primarily because there is some danger that these regulations will be reversed, with the result that Internet content will not exist on a homogenous plane but will rather be stratified on the basis of money expended by content providers.
Stakeholders for Net Neutrality
Essentially, if net neutrality were undermined, then this would be the virtual equivalent of a situation in which (for example) only people with money have the right to be heard, and the more money they have, the greater their right to be heard. One key stakeholder in favor of net neutrality is the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). According to the ACLU, “
network neutrality is a consumer issue, but it is also one of the foremost free speech issues of our time. In this day and age, it is pretty much impossible to get through life without using the Internet—which is why it’s essential that our free speech rights are protected both on- and offline” (question 10).
This would ultimately turn the Internet into an oligarchic or even plutocratic space (ruled by the few and/or by money) and undermine the democratic nature of the Internet and the potentials for communication it enables. In this context, it makes a great deal of sense that the ACLU would be one of the leading advocates for net neutrality: the organization has always stood up for freedom of speech, and this is simply the form that this issue takes in the modern world.
Sci-Hub and digital piracy
One core belief of net neutrality is that information should be free. Take the case of Alexandra Elbakyan and Sci-Hub for example. Elbakyan made a vast number of academic journal articles available for free on the internet. These journals are technically the property of the publisher, and normally require payment to access them.
While what she did is technically illegal, the site Sci-Hub is a valuable resource for students, and academics to get the information they may not be able to afford but require in order to complete a specific assignment or course. Without net neutrality, access to sites like hers could simply be restricted.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Freedom of Speech
Another stakeholder that staunchly supports net neutrality is the Electronic Frontier Foundation. This organization approaches the issue less from the perspective of freedom of speech than from the perspective of innovation. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has suggested that
“individually and collectively, these practices [to undermine net neutrality] pose a dire to the engine of innovation that has allowed hackers, startup companies, and kids in their college dorm rooms to make the Internet that we know and love today” (paragraph 4).
This is because if net neutrality is undermined, then a kind of monopoly situation would be created, where established companies with large amounts of money will essentially corner the Internet and make it difficult for new parties to break into the “industry” (so to speak). This would have the same stultifying effects on the Internet that a monopoly tends to have on any industry: quality will decrease as complacency replaces innovation.
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Stakeholders against Net Neutrality
The main idea here is that net neutrality can only be preserved through regulations that prevent the right of Internet service providers to enter into special financial agreements with Internet content providers, and that this is a violation of the right of companies like Verizon to freedom of association. Regarding stakeholders who are against net neutrality, Brown has stated the following:
“According to companies like Verizon, net neutrality itself is a government attack on internet freedom. . . . To interpret: net neutrality threatens the freedom of capitalists to threaten the freedom of everyone else” (paragraph 6).
More generally, it can be suggested that YouTube, Amazon, Netflix, and other powerful and wealthy companies would naturally oppose net neutrality, since in the simplest terms, the principle of net neutrality means that companies cannot use money in order to purchase influence on the Internet (see Hahn and Wallsten). The Internet content provider may want to buy influence, and the Internet service provider may want to sell it; but net neutrality means that such transactions must be forbidden by law.
Net neutrality and political impact
The Republican Party has also come out against net neutrality. As Mitchell has indicated, the Republican critique’s main message seems to be that it is not appropriate for the government to become involved in the regulation of the Internet in particular or the economy more generally. Again, net neutrality means that an external governmental check is placed against the potential actions that can be taken by different economic actors within the capitalist economic system.
It is thus entirely to be expected that the Republicans would take a position against net neutrality. Moreover, this position is surely also reinforced by the fact that President Obama has come out strongly in favor of net neutrality (see White House). This is thus yet another issue over which the two parties can engage in vehement disagreements.
From the above discussion, it has become clear that in general, stakeholders to the left of center on the political spectrum are very likely to support net neutrality, whereas stakeholders to the right of center are very likely to oppose it. This means that both liberals and radicals would probably agree that net neutrality is a good thing: this idea is confirmed by the fact that both the ACLU and an organization called the Socialist Alternative are on the same page regarding this issue (see Brown).
On the other hand, both traditional conservatives and libertarians would probably agree that net neutrality is a bad thing: this would be the case either because of alliances with big money within the nation or because of principled opposition to any kind of governmental regulation of the Internet and the economy.
Politically, then, the issue of net neutrality, like several other issues, would seem to be clearly divided along left/right lines. This also means that the future of the issue is likely to depend on what happens in elections over the coming times.
The 2016 Republican presidential candidates are in favor of few neutrality restrictions than Democrats. If the Democrats remain in control of the White House, then it can be expected that net neutrality will retain much stronger protections than if the Republicans gain control in the 2016 elections.
On the other hand, the midterm elections of 2014 have resulted in the Republicans gaining control of Capitol Hill; and this could result in difficulties with passing the legislation that would be required in order to enhance protections regarding net neutrality (see Mitchell). The people left of center simply have a very different perspective on this subject from the people right of center.
The newly appointed head of the FCC, Ajit Pai has stated the death of net nutrality is near.
To liberals and radicals, freedom of opportunity must be protected through regulation; whereas for conservatives and libertarians, freedom of association must be protected through deregulation. These are very different priorities, and they must inevitably come into conflict.
In summary, the present essay has consisted of a discussion of the subject of net neutrality. A description of the issue has been provided, key stakeholders for and against net neutrality have been identified, and the political implications have been considered. Ultimately, disagreement over this issue stems from a deeper moral disagreement regarding the nature of freedom. This subject will surely be the source of many argumentative and opinion essays for years to come.
On the one hand, there is the freedom to essentially do whatever one wants as an economic actor; but on the other, there is the freedom to access important resources in an equitable way as a social actor. Depending on which kind of freedom one prioritizes, one will reach very different conclusions regarding the issue of net neutrality.
American Civil Liberties Union. “What Is Net Neutrality?” 2014. Web. 3 Dec. 2014. https://www.aclu.org/net-neutrality.
Brown, George Martin Fell. “Net Neutrality under Attack.” Socialist Alternative. 24 Jun. 2014. Web. 3 Dec. 2014. http://www.socialistalternative.org/2014/06/24/net-neutrality-under- attack/.
Crowcroft, Jon. “Net Neutrality: The Technical Side of the Issue—A White Paper.” International Journal of Communication 1 (2007): 567-579. Web. 3 Dec. 2014. http://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/viewFile/159/84.
Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Net Neutrality.” 2014. Web. 3 Dec. 2014. https://www.eff.org/issues/net-neutrality.
Hahn, Robert, and Scott Wallsten. “The Economics of Net Neutrality.” Joint Center. 2006. 3 Dec. 2014. http://www.offnews.info/downloads/economicsOfNeutrality.pdf.
Mitchell, Lincoln. “Republican Opposition to Net Neutrality.” New York Observer 11 Nov. 2014. Web. 3 Dec. 2014. Web. http://observer.com/2014/11/republican-opposition-to-net-neutrality/.
White House. “Net Neutrality: President Obama’s Plan for a Free and Open Internet.” 2014. Web. 3 Dec. 2014. http://www.whitehouse.gov/net-neutrality.