Given the central importance of the Internet to modern life today, an important social and political question that emerges is: should the federal government be allowed to engage in the regulation of information on the Internet? This question is more complex than it may initially seem. The purpose of this sample essay is to explore the issue in some depth and then ultimately make the argument that the federal government should be allowed to regulate the Internet.
Clarifying internet regulations
When one simply asks whether the government should be allowed to regulate information on the Internet, the question is somewhat leading: it seems to mean the same thing as asking whether or not the government should effectively censor the Internet. The obvious answer for the vast majority of people living in an open and democratic society would surely be that the government absolutely should not be allowed to engage in such a practice.
Indeed, such censorship, aside from being contrary to the heavy majority of public opinion, would likely also be in direct contradiction against the First Amendment protection of free speech guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States. Outright censorship of the Internet, then, is not what is under consideration in the present essay. The assumption can safely be made that this is quite simply not a real policy option within a democratic society.
Net neutrality versus internet censorship
What is really under consideration here, then, is often described as the issue of net neutrality. This refers to the federal government taking steps specifically in order to ensure that the Internet remains a fair and open playing field for the communication of all kinds of information and that the free market itself does not end up creating a kind of natural censorship on the basis of money.
For example, net neutrality would prevent one stakeholder from paying extra money in order to ensure that Internet users have easier access to his content than to the content of another stakeholder who has not paid that money. The Federal Communications Commission, an agency within the federal government of the United States, recently reached the decision that policies should be implemented that ensure net neutrality, on the grounds that the Internet can now reasonably be classified as a public utility (Ruiz and Lohr).
This involves governmental control of access to information on the Internet; but in principle, the purpose of this regulation is not in order to censor the information, but rather actually to ensure that information is not de facto censored as a result of market forces and pressures.
Arguments for internet regulation
The main argument in favor of the governmental regulation of the Internet consists of the basic observation that the regulation of the Internet through net neutrality policies would not impede freedom of communication but rather may itself be an essential condition for the preservation of real freedom. Brown, for example, has ironically commented on the opposition of Internet companies to net neutrality in the following way:
“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).
The main idea here is that it is actually the unregulated Internet, beholden to nothing but the imperatives of the free market, would lead to a scenario of de facto censorship. In this context, the regulations of the federal government would not constitute positive efforts per se as much as a defensive endeavor to guard against the positive efforts of other stakeholders, especially service providers.
Difference between digital protection and internet censorship
Again, in order for this line of argument to make sense, it must be carefully borne in mind that the issue under consideration here categorically does not consist of efforts to actually control what information can or cannot appear on the Internet; that is, net neutrality is not at all the same thing as censorship.
The real point is that in the absence of net neutrality itself, the situation that will emerge may bear a dangerous resemblance to a situation of censorship, in practice if not in theory. Net neutrality advocates such as the American Civil Liberties Union strongly believe that such a situation cannot be allowed to develop, and that federal regulation of the Internet is thus essential for the true preservation of First Amendment rights.
The internet represents open domain and free access to all
Moreover, the case can easily be made that the Internet should be considered as a public utility in these modern times and that the federal regulation of utilities has always been commonplace within the United States. For example, Meyer has suggested that it is somewhat surprising that conservatives in Congress should oppose net neutrality policy, insofar:
“a poll released by a consortium of pro-net neutrality found that self-identifying conservatives widely support regulation to limit cable companies’ ability to affect the Internet” (paragraph 8).
In other words, there has generally been a strong consensus within the United States that utilities should be protected from the interference of market forces, insofar as such forces, left to themselves, would produce a situation of inequality and injustice. This leads one to tentatively conclude that the people who actually oppose net neutrality are perhaps driven by a false notion of what is at stake, equating net neutrality with censorship instead of with protection against censorship.
A belief shared by a large sector of the internet community is that information should be free. Take the case of Alexandra Elbakyan for example. Elbakyan made a vast number of academic journal articles available for free on the internet. While what she did is technically illegal, her 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, sites like hers could simply be denied access.
Arguments against internet regulation
One of the main arguments against the federal regulation of information on the Internet is that such regulation would potentially curb the innovation and dynamism that has made the development of the Internet so successful in the first place. As McDowell has written:
“The Net has been open since it was privatized by the Clinton administration. It proliferated globally as it migrated farther away from government control—bringing freedom and prosperity to billions” (paragraph 5).
In other words, the argument could be made that it is precisely the deregulated nature of the Internet that has driven its prosperity and power thus far. The implication would be that regulations such as net neutrality policy would impede this progress and actually set the Internet as a whole back a considerable way.
Setting an example for the international community
Another argument that has been made against federal regulation is that this could potentially set a bad precedent not only for domestic policy but also the potential actions of other nations. For example, Sasso has indicated that some stakeholders fear that if the American government implements Internet regulations, then other nations such as China and Russia could cite such regulations as a precedent for censorship regulations they would like to implement within their own territories.
Then, if the United States were to object to such policies, this would look like a double standard, through which the United States simultaneously favors regulations for itself but opposes them when other nations attempt to implement their own regulations. This would become a serious international issue that transcends the scope of net neutrality within the United States
America’s policy of open marketplaces
Finally, some stakeholders oppose governmental regulation of the Internet simply out of economic self-interest. The providers of Internet services, for example, are against net neutrality policy primarily because such policy would interfere with their own profits: the companies would no longer be able to charge premiums to clients for enhanced access to their content online, which translates into the companies losing the revenues that they would have been able to generate through such contractual arrangements.
Companies that rely on file sharing protocols like BitTorrent would no longer be able to make their updates and information open to clients. Insofar as one believes that the free market is fair and the freedom of actors within the market to reach mutually beneficial arrangements is essential to the very concept of freedom itself, government regulation of the Internet can thus become a sort of moral problem. The free market has historically always been allied with the liberal-democratic state; therefore, regulations on the free market could be read as potential threats against liberal-democratic freedom itself.
Did the US Government overstep their boundaries? Learn more about Operation Choke Point.
The present essay will now conclude that on the basis of the arguments that have been presented above, the federal government should play a role in regulating information on the Internet. Again, a critical point that must be reiterated here is that this regulation of information, through the implementation of net neutrality policy, is motivated not by a desire to censor the information on the Internet but rather, much the opposite, to protect the Internet against de facto censorship.
The logic here is that if net neutrality is not put into place by the federal government, then the free market will produce a situation in which stakeholders who are willing to pay more money to service providers will gain a privileged place within the Internet, whereas stakeholders who either cannot or will not pay that money will be relatively marginalized on the Internet. This would result in a de facto censorship of information on the Internet, and the purpose of government regulation would be to prevent such censorship and thereby ensure the continued freedom of the Internet.
American Civil Liberties Union. “What Is Net Neutrality?” 2014. Web. 19 Nov. 2015. 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/.
McDowell, Robert M. “This Is Why the Government Should Never Control the Internet.” Washington Post. 14 Jul. 2014. Web. 19 Nov. 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/07/14/this-is-why-the-government-should-never-control-the- internet/.
Meyer, Robinson. “The Conservative Case for Net Neutrality.” Atlantic. 12 Nov. 2014. Web. 19 Nov. 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/11/the-conservative- case-for-net-neutrality/382650/.
Ruiz, Rebecca R., and Steve Lohr. “F.C.C. Approves Net Neutrality Rules, Classifying Broadband Internet Service as a Utiity.” New York Times. 26 Feb. 2015. Web. 19 Nov. 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/27/technology/net-neutrality-fcc-vote-internet- utility.html?_r=0.
Sasso, Brendan. “Republicans Fear Net Neutrality Plan Could Lead to UN Internet Powers.” National Journal. 25 Feb. 2015. Web. 19 Nov. 2015. http://www.nationaljournal.com/tech/2015/02/25/Republicans-Fear-Net-Neutrality-Plan-Could-Lead-UN-Internet-Powers.
United States. “Constitution of the United States: Bill of Rights.” The Avalon Project, 1789. Web. 22 Mar. 2015. ;http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/rights1.asp#5.
Wu, Tim. “Net Neutrality: How the Government Finally Got It Right.” New Yorker. 5 Feb. 2015. Web. 19 Nov. 2015. http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/net-neutrality-shows- democracy-can-work.