Net Neutrality: The Debate Continues
After the FCC’s net neutrality ruling this February, it’s easy to think the issue is done, especially with several 2016 candidates declaring their candidacy. The wave of awareness started by John Oliver’s now-famous segment seems to have worn off, and the only country really discussing the topic now is India.
But the issue of net neutrality is far from over. The FCC’s new rules, which classify the Internet as a public utility, take effect on June 12th. Between now and then, many things could undo this progress, so those who support (or oppose) net neutrality shouldn't yet relax. The real battle still rages on for a few reasons.
Lawsuits, or Congress, could change the rules
The biggest threat to the current ruling is, unsurprisingly, telecom companies that provide broadband and Internet services. It only took a few minutes after the new rules for USTelecom, one of the largest ISP providers, to file a suit.
These lawsuits aren't harmless. The whole reason the FCC had to change their original rules was because Verizon won a lawsuit over a year ago that sent the FCC back to the drawing board. The FCC was then judged to be over-regulating broadband providers to stop them from making some web traffic faster or slower than others. It’s basically the same argument they’re making for the new rules, so don’t be surprised if it works again.
Republicans in Congress are also trying override the FCC’s new regulations with a resolution of disapproval. But while some of Congress don’t like these rules, Barack Obama would likely veto it . Plus it’s rare for important legislation to pass from the most unproductive Congress in history. The bigger threat is lawsuits from telecom companies, which could very well succeed again.
Net neutrality is still hard to understand
The FCC ruling may have answered the question, “What will happen next for net neutrality?” But there are plenty of other questions important to the public debate that remain unanswered. This can come back to bite the country when the issue re-emerges. Especially because those questions are tough to answer, such as:
- Should different types of data, such as streaming video, be treated equally if they consume more bandwidth?
- Can regulating how the Internet is provided really hurt competition when there’s barely any competition at all? Should regulations do more to encourage local providers that’ll compete more?
- Should the Internet be classified as a public utility from a law passed in 1934? Or are there better ways to regulate it to ensure equal treatment of data?
- Does making the Internet a public utility mean it’ll be taxed similar to other public utilities to fund it?
Unfortunately, while these are vital questions, they’re also tough for most Americans to get their heads around. It’s even difficult for someone like me, whose career is almost entirely based around the Internet. Too many articles start with decent explanations but get lost in jargon. Another recent John Oliver segment, this one with Edward Snowden on government surveillance, again drove home this key point: most people don’t fully understand technology issues.
This wouldn’t be too bad if it weren’t for two key parts of the net neutrality debate: telecom companies' lobbying powers and our love of the Internet.
It’s no secret how much influence cable and Internet providers have on the government. They’re some of the biggest spenders when it comes to lobbying. This is most obvious when some Republican congressmen who get campaign money from them make powerful statements against net neutrality, even if they try harder to rile the public than to make sense. When this much effort goes into misinformation, it’s even more important to get accurate facts.
"Net Neutrality" is Obamacare for the Internet; the Internet should not operate at the speed of government.
— Senator Ted Cruz (@SenTedCruz) November 10, 2014
This partisan influence has even spread inside the FCC itself, with one of the Republican chair members leading an all-out war against net neutrality.
Here is Pres. Obama's revised 317-page plan to regulate the Internet. The public still can't see it. I'm voting no. pic.twitter.com/RirBVPChmV
— Ajit Pai (@AjitPaiFCC) February 25, 2015
The second reason why partisanship is worse for net neutrality is it isn’t an issue people can just ignore. Virtually everyone relies on the Internet in some way today, so it's going to directly affect them, either they love silly videos or are building a digital career. Everyone is in the Internet game, so everyone has a reason to get involved.
These two reasons are why it’s important for everyone to be well-informed about net neutrality. But despite this importance, it’s still too complicated for most to easily understand. Until we find some way to become well-informed, this issue can’t be put to rest. Especially when, as with all issues, public opinion can create change when it’s powerful enough (and the Internet's involved).
I can’t claim to have every answer about net neutrality. But I’m sure the issue is still far from settled in the U.S. Lawsuits from telecom companies have forced rule changes before and can again. Plus, the public needs to fully understand the topic before it can be resolved, and it’s going to be a while before that happens for such a complicated issue.
I think a good starting point to everything is to ask one question: do people have a natural right to use the Internet? Should everyone be entitled a minimum standard of Internet access similar to basic food, water, and housing? Has the Internet’s role in society become so powerful that a life without it isn’t a life at all?
I still don’t have an answer myself. Part of me knows that it’s thanks to the Internet that I’ve been able to teach myself so much in several areas. Another part knows that some uses of the Internet, such as dulling our minds with constant entertainment, make us passive and selfish. It’s easy and damaging to get too much of a good thing with the Internet, which makes me hesitant about its role in our lives.
The only thing I’m certain of is that net neutrality’s future is still open. So no one should put it out of their minds, no matter who else declares their candidacy for 2016.
Max Antonucci is a senior at Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Public Communications, studying Online Journalism and Information Technology. His career focuses include web design and development, social media, content marketing, and anything related to working and thinking digitally. At school he's the Lead Tech and Innovation Producer at The Newshouse and helping launch a local startup news site. He can turn almost any topic into a political or philosophical discussion, enjoys drawing the occasional cartoon, and somehow has gone his whole college life without drinking coffee. Follow him on Twitter at @DigitalMaxToday.