The Cost of Net Neutrality

By: Becky Bracken

Net Neutrality asks a lot of networks. Tier 1 Internet backbone providers hold the digital age in the palm of their hand. Heavy stuff when you think about it. Each second, more of everyday modern life is lived and recorded online. And just a few very powerful companies control it all--from world's economy to vacation snapshots.

The internet, with its punk-rock, intellectual-anarchist roots, is intended to provide every user with equal access to the world. It's that equal access that built the fortune of Ebay, which offered people in all corners of the world a global storefront. The internet has given artists, writers and musicians the ability to self publish. Equal access to the internet has unleashed oppressed people and brought tyrannical dictators to their knees. Everyone has the opportunity to be heard and contribute online. It's the defining trait of our age.

But, what often gets left out of the Net Neutrality debate is that carriers have historically taken an agnostic approach to the content they're carrying because they had little or no way to analyze the content that traversed their networks. Now technology has given networks the tools to see every bit and byte in real time--and make decisions based on what they see.

Companies exist to make money. That's simple enough to understand. But when ISPs realized they could open new revenue streams by selling priority delivery of information to some favored customers--with very deep pockets--and leave everyone else with the left over bandwidth, observers quickly saw a seriously slippery slope. Comcast was the first company in 2007 to draw fire over blocking and throttling some types of traffic and in Dec. 2010, the FCC passed rules to keep the internet neutral. The only problem was that ISPs said the FCC lacked the authority to impose restrictions on their business. Plus, the rules themselves have loopholes the size of a dump truck and exclude adequate governance of wireless communications. Enter the lawyers, Stage Right.

Private internets

The non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) brings together policy wonks, technologists, activists and lawyers to police digital communications on behalf of consumers and the general public. Net Neutrality is of keen interest to the EFF. The EFF argues that the creation of a “private internet” imposes unconstitutional restrictions on free speech and would stifle innovation by upstart entrepreneurs and inventors, who would no longer be allowed to compete on an equal footing with larger players.

"The central goal of the net neutrality movement is to prevent ISPs from discriminating against lawful content on the internet," said EFF Civil Liberties Director Jennifer Granick. "Yet the FCC's version of net neutrality specifically allows ISPs to make those discriminations--opening the door to widespread Internet surveillance and censorship in the guise of copyright protection and addressing the needs of law enforcement."


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