One way to predict the future is to project from the past. Where the future of the “Information Age” is concerned, however, we have moved so quickly beyond the past that it seems of little relevance. When, before now, could one shop, talk, write and work out all at the same time? The radio was an improvement over newspapers, the TV was an improvement over radios and the computer trumped them all. As opposed to a physical vehicle for technological progress, however, the Internet isn’t really defined or owned by one entity. Its unique nature raises a lot of questions — most importantly, the question of who should regulate this broad new horizon, if anyone at all.
A couple of weeks ago, the Senate voted to uphold a Federal Communications Commission order prohibiting broadband Internet service providers like Verizon and AT&T from limiting or preferencing certain traffic within their networks. Hopefully, these measures will protect “net neutrality,” a principle that advocates against restrictions on Internet-based means of communication and content.
There is a key question to answer before deciding the debate over the FCC regulations. Is the Internet a singular product, destined to be controlled by the companies supporting consumer access to it? Or is it a new forum for information that must be protected against censorship or else risk First Amendment rights?
My answer is that it is neither of these yet, and it will be what we make of it now at this legal crossroads. I think it’s best to render it a forum for information — if we lose that, we could lose net content developments in the future. The Internet is defined by the exchange or sharing of information and services. A website, in this way, is much like the proverbial tree in the forest — does a video website really exist if no one is watching its content? When a very few broadband providers like Verizon and AT&T control not only consumer access to sites and services but also their very ability to function in the Internet, diversity of innovation is stifled.
Nor, even if you see the Internet as a market, should providers have the ability to limit competition. If Verizon creates a phone service like Skype or a video service like Hulu, the ability to slow customers’ access to competing sites and services gives Verizon a huge vertical advantage. There is, of course, the argument that consumers are free to switch broadband providers if they do not want to have their choices limited. Who, however, is likely to give up speedy service to go to a second rate Internet provider to save Skype or Hulu? Instead, consumers are likely to stick with their original service plan, giving already-large corporations effective monopoly rights to Internet-based services should they choose to provide them. The Internet would then become the product of a few companies, whereas we should strive to preserve it as a forum in which actors can provide new and better information and services.
Some people think that service providers should be able to prioritize web usage. They point to examples where companies could slow down torrent sites where consumers illegally download music, or prioritize websites that provide medical information in the case of an emergency. True, these regulations would prevent that from happening. But on the vast majority of websites that offer illegally downloadable content, it is the consumers themselves who upload videos, music and documents. While it is true that webmasters enable this illegal exchange of copyrighted materials, it is the users who engage in the illegal activity. In the cyber world and in the real world, it’s important that we punish those who commit illegal acts, not those who create conditions where those acts can take place. Additionally, if a site’s abusive practices were to become aggregrately harmful, it should be the government (or the FCC on Congressional order) to control that activity, not corporate providers. If the Internet is to be modified, preventing certain activities from happening, a lot of questions about freedom of speech come up. It should be the government and only the government, accountable to the people, that makes changes to promote the legal exchange of information and ideas.
The final question is whether or not the FCC itself should regulate Internet policies. It should certainly do it under the auspices of Congressional legislation, and for that I understand criticisms of its initiative to restrain companies on its own. Government intervention, or in this case preservation, of net neutrality is and will continue to be extremely important if the Internet is to flourish as a true field of innovation as opposed to a product of just a few providers.
Maggie Henry is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at email@example.com. Get Over Yourself appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.