The greatest success of the Internet — or perhaps its greatest flaw depending on how you look at it — is its openness. Everyone has access to it, everyone can use it. For better or for worse, the World Wide Web is an open highway for just about anything and everything.
Maintaining that equal access hasn’t exactly been an easy fight, however. Large Internet service providers such as Comcast and Verizon have been arguing that since they’ve invested billions of dollars into their web-related infrastructures, they should be able to maintain them in a way that allows them to get a return on their investments.
Verizon is currently in a heated legal battle with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) over exactly that. They argue that, according to an article in the New York Times, they should be able to regulate their own Internet ‘pipelines’ however they want to. For instance, if they wanted to create a tiered system of service, meaning that they could offer an “express lane” of sorts to groups willing to pay an extra fee, then they should be able to do that.
The FCC argues, as it has done before, that such systems create an unfair and unbalanced environment for companies who want to use the Internet to reach a consumer base. The express lane on the Internet would allow those with surplus cash to reach a consumer audience first, long before everyone else.
The principle of keeping access on the Internet equal, or Net Neutrality, is something that keeps the playing field equalized. Very much in the spirit of the capitalism, it ensures that information is judged based on its content rather than how early or late it is the the game.
Net Neutrality ensures that everyone, from the largest corporation to the lowliest start-up, has an equal chance to make their pitch to consumers. It makes it so that the consumer has a wide variety of choices to look at when they are searching the web, and means that the consumer is the one to make the judgement call as to what is good and what isn’t. Everyone is on a level playing field, and the consumer decides who wins and loses.
If you were, say, a high school student shopping around for what college to go to at a fair, Net Neutrality requires that every college is available at the outset. The tiered system would change that system so that colleges with deeper pockets would be able to get a head start on getting your attention. Colleges with money to pay for an early pass in, for example, would be given a chance to talk to you a day before other smaller schools. CU would be able to talk to you before Front Range Community College; CSU would get to tell you about themselves before Adams State etc. etc.
The difference then becomes a matter of being told what is good instead of deciding what is good. Instead of good content rising to the top naturally due to consumer choice, sponsored content would rise to the top artificially because they got to the consumer before everything else.
I think that this is why the FCC has a vested interest in keeping regulations that prevent companies like Verizon from doing whatever they want with their Internet pipelines. Much like the market, there should be a governing presence in place that keeps the field equal and competition alive. It needs to be in place in order to prevent the successful from monopolizing the market and stifling smaller companies who may have a better alternative product.
In layman’s terms, I would prefer to decide for myself that buying a Hulu Plus account for streaming video is better than buying a Netflix account. I’d prefer that over being told that Hulu is preferable than Netflix because Hulu was able to afford a place on my ISP’s express lane, or vice versa.
The Verizon v. FCC case is still working its way through the U.S. Court of Appeals, and a decision isn’t likely to come for at least a few months. Despite that, there are thousands of eyeball on it, keeping a close watch on how the outcome will affect the use of the Internet.
Editorial Editor Caleb Hendrich is a senior journalism and political science major, who spends quite a bit of time on the Internet. Letters and feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.