Supporting Net Neutrality: A Vote for a Free Market & Free Speech
By Caitlyn Vergara
Ensured by the state of California, all internet users within its borders are able to browse different websites and access them all at relatively the same speed based on their wireless connections. In other words, users can stream videos on Netflix at the same speed they can on YouTube. Internet users in California have this unfettered access to various websites because of the California Internet Consumer Protection and Net Neutrality Act that was officially passed in February 2021. Without this Net Neutrality Act, internet service providers (ISPs) such as AT&T or Xfinity would have no regulations preventing them from slowing down or speeding up the delivery of digital content at their discretion. In short, net neutrality is a legal act that prevents all ISPs from throttling or blocking internet traffic and “penalizing or prioritizing” digital content. Popular ISPs such as AT&T or Verizon commonly advertise to users that they can purchase “unlimited” Wi-Fi, but internet connection is a scarce good like any other. Years of consumers seeing misleading advertisements peddled by ISPs may have contributed to the confusion on what the concept of net neutrality refers to. Internet connection is limited by a maximum number of data transfers within a bandwidth. To imagine this bandwidth, picture it as a highway with a limited amount of lanes. In this analogy, the highway is the overall bandwidth and the lanes are pathways data travels on to reach users. Under net neutrality legislation, the data that makes up all digital content is able to travel on these bandwidth lanes at equal speeds. When all content is treated equally, ISPs are mandated to treat online outlets like the New York Times or Fox News equally by delivering their content to users at the same rates. Essentially, net neutrality prevents ISPs from making some lanes faster than others. I value the incentive net neutrality creates for ISPs to treat all information in an equal manner especially as U.S. political polarization increases.
In the absence of net neutrality, content creators and digital service companies could essentially bid on bandwidths offered by ISPs, and the highest bidder would get their content delivered to users faster than usual. Without this government intervention within the telecommunications industry, companies with the capital means could stunt innovation by preventing their competitors from ever properly reaching the market in the first place. If the Net Neutrality Act was not enacted in California, a digital retail company like Amazon could hypothetically pay ISPs for more bandwidth and get their services to consumers faster than a competitor such as EBay. In this hypothetical example, consumers would have a harder time accessing the slowly loading EBay site and would be more likely to shop through Amazon. Unlike traditional stores who rely on their leased spaces and curious pedestrians wondering in, online retail services need a third party, an ISPs, to reach their customers. I consider net neutrality a legislation that maintains a public street for consumers to use at their discretion without ISPs biases influencing them. Non discriminatory protections for digital content creators should be seen as a means to economic growth and innovation. The last year’s worth of shelter in place exacerbated people’s reliance on the internet for professional and personal communications, retail and grocery shopping, education, and entertainment. This array of functions the internet provides creates a legitimate marketplace for ideas and goods. As a customer of several online platforms, I biasedly believe ISPs are not suitable actors to decide which services or goods succeed or fail in the market
While these benefits from California’s Net Neutrality Act may seem reasonable, the Department of Justice (DoJ) was suing the state of California for this act up until February 2021. This lawsuit against the state of California was merely reminisce of the Trump Administrations’ decision to overturn Obama’s 2015 federal Net Neutrality Act. Opponents of net neutrality believe that less oversight of the internet could lead to ISPs having the freedom to charge bandwidth-intensive companies more for their services, and that revenue could go towards keeping other digital services free. Under these opposing premises, ISPs without government oversight could have the right to charge bandwidth heavy users such as Google more for their services and then subsidize bandwidth access for other companies such as Bing or Yahoo. In this scenario, any consumers could access Bing or Yahoo’s search engines free of charge even without a being a contracted customer to the ISP. While this alternative to government oversight might seem like it might lead to more accessible digital content, the company being charged more could compensate for those prices by charging their customers a subscription fee. A Georgetown University journal mentions that the same logic could be applied to digital education services. As college tuition continues to inflate, many adults have turned to the internet for affordable educational certifications on vocational training platforms such as Coursera and Google Career Certification programs. If ISPs lacked government oversight, they could easily charge these educational platforms more for their services which might, in turn, increase their certification programs’ cost. If all businesses in these scenarios were to act in their own best interests, the end user would bear the largest costs.
Beyond hypothetical scenarios, examining what ISPs have done without the since overturned Obama-era Net Neutrality Act shows that ISPs have limited free speech through selfish decisions. In 2007, Verizon disabled a text messaging program ran by an abortion rights group. This is one of many politically charged decisions ISPs have made prior to net neutrality. Since the dot-com bubble, ISPs have made hefty donations to both conservative and liberal politicians and organizations. So, their motive to maintain a bipartisan digital space may be tainted by their political endeavors. Net neutrality should be supported in a bipartisan fashion to protect a free market and freedom of speech online. Although the DoJ has since dropped charges on California, the public should be wary against national opponents and collectively support net neutrality to protect an innovative and open internet.