Net Neutrality, Round Three

Debates over net neutrality started nearly two decades ago, but the controversy surrounding it still persists. So does some degree of confusion about what it means, despite the best efforts of journalists and even one late night talk show host to explain it in clear (and entertaining) terms.

Neutrality, Explained

At its heart, the issue is simple: internet service providers, or ISPs (including Comcast, AT&T, Time Warner, and Verizon) should treat all content equally. So, for example, CNN should not be able to pay extra to an ISP so it can broadcast faster than Fox. Similarly, during an election campaign, your ISP should not offer better access to one candidate’s website than another. The notion is that ISPs are public utilities, and therefore should give consumers equal access to information from every publication, advocacy group, and political candidate’s website online.

A related concern is the impact of charging higher fees for faster speed. Supporters of net neutrality fear that if the process is not adequately regulated, ISPs will begin charging more and more fees for the fastest connections. At some point, fees could become high enough to make it nearly impossible for small start-ups to compete, making the internet, in effect, less competitive.

Shifting Policies

In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted regulatory oversight for ISPs intended to preserve net neutrality. Then in 2017, Ajit Pai, a Republican appointed to head the FCC by President Trump, successfully pushed the agency to repeal those rules. It appears now, however, that the momentum on this issue could be poised to swing back the other way.

On April 10, 2019, the House passed the Save the Internet Act, designed to reinstate the net neutrality protections put in place in 2015, by a vote of 232-190. The bill faces opposition in the Senate and from the administration. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has stated that the bill is “dead on arrival,” and the White House says it “strongly opposes” the bill as well.

Public Opinion

Voice of the People, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization, recently released the results of a survey that showed overwhelming opposition to the repeal of net neutrality by 86 percent of those surveyed. The results are overwhelmingly bipartisan as well: 82 percent of Republicans and 90 percent of Democrats oppose repeal of the rules.

The in-depth survey was conducted by the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland. Participants heard arguments for and against net neutrality, including an argument from the FCC defending the repeal. After being presented all of the arguments for and against, respondents were asked to give their final opinion. Only 13 percent supported net neutrality repeal.

Despite opposition in the Senate and from the administration, some supporters are optimistic that the House vote, combined with sustained public pressure from net neutrality supporters, will prevail in the end. Spurred on by public advocacy groups, web activists, and John Oliver, millions of Americans already have written the FCC in support of net neutrality. Voters can continue to make their voices heard by writing the FCC and their representatives in Congress.