Stephen Melkisethian

The Internet has become such an integral part of our lives, which consumes our hours and hours every day (well, or at least it does for me!). Sometimes, we do take it for granted that the access to it should be open as it is right now. It wasn’t exactly the case in the United States before 2015, and it might as well not be the case in two weeks’ time. On December 14, the process of repealing the net neutrality act will be invoked by the National Congress, which potentially could transfer a lot of rights back to the corporations who have the control of public access to the Internet.

So who is in the position to dictate the net neutrality policy?

Net neutrality is the policy that prohibits internet service providers (ISP) to deliberately slow or block the access to a certain Internet service, in order for them to promote the own or closely affiliated service.

In the United States, the independent institute that is in charge of foreseeing all domestic means of communications is called the Federal Communication Commission (FCC). Established in 1934 through the enactment of the Communications Act, the organization attempts to provide its own citizens with equitable access to all means of communication services without any kind of discrimination and at reasonable prices. In its mission statement, while it tries to ensure the rights of people to access any means of communication, it also wants to make sure that service providers are able to continuously improve themselves with innovative products to promote the sense of competitive markets between them. As of current, the Communications Act classifies the Internet as a “common carrier”, so that companies which provide these services could not impose upon any restriction to its users, similar to that of home telephones and radio services.

The Chairman of the FCC is currently Ajit Pai, who had been working in various positions in the organization before being elected to the elective board by President Donald Trump earlier this year. He previously worked as the attorney general to Verizon Communications (which is one of the biggest ISPs), so his stance on this issue was widely accused to be privately-motivated to benefit these companies. The current Board of the FCC consists of five officers, in which three of them are Republicans. Famously known for his stance on anti-regulation, this decision merely struck any surprise to the public.

If the vote against net neutrality is accepted by Congress on this upcoming week, it would classify the Internet rather as an “information service”, so that companies who provide Internet access can discriminate their users by their subscription to a limited range of websites – which can be translated through additional costs to consumers. So before the net neutrality rule was in place in 2015, many customers had difficulties getting access to some of the online applications. Google Wallet was the most prominent example of this act of discrimination, whereby the ISPs deliberately shut down any public access to the application which in turn competed with similar products developed by these ISP companies.

Of course, this is not something that the US had not been through before. In fact, the “net neutrality” policy has only been endorsed officially by the former President Barack Obama since 2014, and the full and comprehensive enactment of net neutrality was not imposed until one year later.

More detrimentally, a research found that when the access to a certain webpage is not as it normally would with some ISPs, consumers would click out of it expecting the published content of the website to load constantly. This goes against the benefits from the standpoint of both consumers and the producers from the construction of welfare, in which an economic transaction might not occur due to the restriction of accessibility that raises the searching cost. Of course, the beneficiaries of this policy are the ISP corporations, more particularly the established providers in the United States.

The argument against net neutrality

Prior to the enactment of the vote on December 14, the FCC officers, of course, do have the obligation to explain publicly on the cons of net neutrality and why it is necessary to repeal the current policy. In many debates and public speeches, net neutrality is presented as the policy that goes against the epitome of competition. The (large) ISP companies say that the imposition of the broadband as “common carrier” would put fewer incentives on them to put further investment on their current broadband infrastructure, thereby limiting them to the option from the further decrease in prices in a distant future, in which of course, that this would eventually benefit the customers. Furthermore, ISP companies such as Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T claim that they were being regulated extremely strictly as much as monopolies – and these companies are hugely annoyed by such statutes.

However, the validity of these arguments does remain in question. For example, a certain neighborhood is usually dominated by an ISP company, which is similar to what we have here in the Netherlands. From the report that is issued in 2016, the FCC found that only 38 percent of US customers had a choice to pick an ISP for their Internet service; otherwise, they usually remain (or are rather forced) with the one that is installed at their own accommodation. Therefore, the sense of competition might not be encouraged drastically between these ISP companies as asserted by the FCC chairman, but rather embracing the freedom for these companies to overcharge their customers. Furthermore, while it might encourage domestic investment from these ISP companies, it does decrease a lot of investment made by other small businesses, especially in this era where the main exposure to the growing population is the Internet. The restriction on the Internet access limits the option for SMEs to grow, for example with digital marketing, small businesses might create an avenue for them to advertise their products without paying too excessive of a price. When the Internet is considered as an “information service”, then these businesses have to make some financial compensations to these ISP to get prioritized feature when customers use their Internet service. For example, in a hypothetical situation, if Microsoft pays to Comcast to throttle the access of customers service to their search engine while Google doesn’t, then obviously in the long-term, Comcast customers would prefer to use Bing not because of its virtue as a search engine, but only because of the unblocked access to the web-searching service. Small businesses may not even have a chance to introduce their products through the Internet. Some might even argue from the philanthropic viewpoint, that Internet is not created by these companies but a public property, so the access to all content of the Internet should be equal to everyone.

However, the FCC could not decide the issue in their own hands (because it is an independent entity), and any decision has to be approved by the National Congress. Although the Congress in Republican-dominated, there is still some strong resistance within the party in regards to the repeal, so many American citizens are trying their best to make their voice heard, which can be done by writing your opinion on the matter on the FCC website. More than 98.5% of comments on the FCC website vows against the legal proceedings of abandoning net neutrality, but could they make a change?

Net neutrality around the world

Surprisingly, Chile was the first country on our entire planet to adopt this policy back in 2010. On June 2012, the Netherlands became the first country in Europe to enact the net neutrality rules, which echoed across Europe and turned into an intra-continental adopted policy made by the European Union in 2014. Still, the regulation that is in place is still relatively lax compared to that of the United States and the Netherlands. When many countries, especially developing ones, look up to the US as their guidance of governing a country, the net neutrality repeal might have adverse consequences all over the world.