Net neutrality has long been an issue that has activated many people in the tech sector. Also called the “open net”, it refers to the basic idea that internet service providers should not provide preferential treatment to certain sites by delivering them faster than others. In other words, “all data packets on the internet should be impartially delivered to consumers regardless of their content, destination, source or cost of service.”
Proponents of net neutrality are in effect trying to maintain the status quo of the early internet: where anyone, regardless of whether they were an individual actor or a major corporation, had the same opportunity to deliver their content to interested parties. This was back when the internet was more or less viewed as the Wild Wild West, and not many big corporations were pushing out content yet. But as the internet has matured and become a major commercial space, of course large actors have applied pressure for their content to be delivered faster and at a more premium speed, undermining smaller players.
It has long been a divisive issue, but it’s recently re-entered the fore due to the changing political situation in America. Under the Obama administration, the Open Internet Order was implemented in 2015, which lays out the Net Neutrality framework that we have in place today. The most recent worry came when President Trump named Ajit Pai as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission or FCC. His conservative, anti-regulatory views run counter to that of his predecessor, who was notably tough on regulating large internet service providers, which is essential for maintaining neutrality online.
In the wake of this new appointment, Business Insider summed up what we can expect next: “In short, expect an attempt to roll it back in some capacity. Pai, along with current GOP commissioner Michael O’Rielly, voted against the 2015 Open Internet Order, claiming it was trying to ‘solve a problem that didn’t exist.’ In December, he said he was ‘more confident than ever’ that the 2015 Order’s ‘days are numbered.’ And he’s repeatedly called for a light-touch, free-market approach to regulation in general, a process he has already started on a minor level. Many of the major cable and telecom lobbies like him because of this predictability.”
Amidst this new appointment, net neutrality activists are mobilising once again in the hope of maintaining a regulatory approach that holds internet service providers accountable. These activists include political figures such as senator Al Franken, a Democratic senator from Minnesota, who wrote a public Facebook post saying he would fight Donald Trump and his administration “every step of the way” on the issue. The post read: “Net neutrality is the free speech issue of our time, and the internet should remain the free and open platform that it’s always been. It is critical to our democracy and our economy that it continue to operate this way.”
Another major group that’s behind net neutrality is the Electronic Frontiers Foundation, an organisation that’s committed to defending online citizens’ digital rights. They note that net neutrality isn’t simply about regulation issued by the FCC, but also about applying pressure on internet service providers. They write: “There’s no silver bullet for net neutrality. The FCC order plays a role by forbidding ISPs from meddling with traffic in certain ways. But transparency is also key: ISPs must be open about how traffic is managed over their networks in order for both users and the FCC to know when there’s a problem. Local governments can also play a crucial role by supporting competitive municipal and community networks. When users can vote with their feet, service providers have a strong incentive not to act in non-neutral ways.”
One thing’s for sure: the fight for net neutrality is not over. While the former administration was more amenable to activists aims, this is certainly no longer the case. Activists, politicians, and regular citizens need to engage if they want to see the web remain an open place.