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The net neutrality battle has caused quite a stir. Reports from different angles attempt to explain the issue. But it can get very confusing if we don’t keep our sights on how it all started. Net neutrality is a phrase coined by Tim Wu, who first noticed and spoke out about the problem. The net neutrality battle has recently become quite intense. Now we go back to the source to get grounded and keep the issue in perspective.
The Net Neutrality Battle Begins
Tim Wu worked for network router maker Riverstone Networks fifteen years ago. This is where he learned how people were manipulating the Internet. Riverstone was supplying the government controlled Chinese ISPs with routers used to filter out unwanted traffic. Wu lasted about a year before he became disenchanted and left the company. The idea of net neutrality stuck with him, and in 2002 he published his first proposal for barring ISPs from practicing traffic discrimination.
The FCC later imposed regulations for traffic equality. ISPs were thus prevented from blocking content and practicing other forms of traffic discrimination. Wu’s point was that people should be able to use their bandwidth as they saw fit. The FCC ruling pretty much kept things on an even keel until a federal appeals court ruled against it. The court said that the FCC did not have the authority to regulate ISPs. This is what stoked the fires for the currently raging net neutrality battle.
Is the Net Neutrality Battle Vain or Valuable?
Some have argued that the net neutrality battle is pointless because the idea of a neutral Internet is a thing of the past. Wu reminds us that it is just the opposite. Now more than ever we need to keep the idea of net neutrality alive. And he helps us remember to keep it down to the essential significance of guaranteeing equality for all on the Internet. The net neutrality battle is about fair treatment for everyone online. Yes, the Internet has been manipulated and used for the commercial benefit of the few. But instead of conceding more territory, we must see this as the very reason for why we must continue fighting the net neutrality battle.
Wu talks about an invisible government. He references Theodore Roosevelt’s 1912 platform stance against the union of big business and crooked government. He is currently fighting to stop the merger of Time Warner and Comcast to prevent broadband Internet monopolies. This merger is a very important line in the net neutrality battle. It sets precedent for allowing business entities to gain too much control. A successful merger will permit them to freely discriminate against smaller businesses and individual Internet users. And it will encourage ISPs to continue their extortion, our biggest enemy in the net neutrality battle.
There will always be arguments against fighting the net neutrality battle. In 2003, some people said that net neutrality would prevent Internet expansion. Other said that it would kill the motivation to provide broadband Internet. Net neutrality was seen as the death of the Internet. Today, people still say that it will prevent growth. But the early net neutrality battle gave us the freedom to use wireless routers at home and make VoIP calls and use VPNs for security. These are three of the most basic online tools that we use on a daily basis. A decade ago, ISPs wanted to block people from being able to use them. Now this is what would have hindered the growth of the Internet and the economies that are built around it.
Traffic Equality Today
If advocates had given up on the net neutrality battle in 2003, we would not have services like Netflix, YouTube, Google and Facebook. But these services demand a huge amount of bandwidth compared to, say, simple text content. Traffic today is not equal in terms of what it requires to be transmitted over the Internet. The FCC is still trying to regulate ISPs, but a fair decision demands that the definition of traffic equality be reevaluated.
We need faster Internet to deliver high-bandwidth traffic. The quick solution is to create Internet fast lanes. But the problem here is that ISPs are taking advantage of this. They have the ability to throttle services so that their content cannot be properly delivered to subscribers. They use this power to squeeze services into paying more for better speeds. And they can also use this to gain a competitive edge for their own services. This cost also creates the threat of charges being passed on to Internet users who already pay their ISPs and services for delivering the content.
Wu again helps us keep the issue simple by identifying competition as the great equalizer. He suggests regulation using the same terms as defined in Title II of the 1934 Telecommunications Act. As common carriers, ISPs would be prevented from practicing traffic discrimination and creating slow lanes for non-paying services. It would also make the sharing of lines obligatory, creating the necessary tension of competition. This is what can ensure that ISPs don’t throw their weight around.
Understandably, cable, phone and Internet companies do not want to be regulated as utilities are. It is important to note here that Comcast provides all of the above services. But today, these services are viewed more as utilities than the luxuries they were a decade or more ago. Wu thinks that there should be no argument here. Providers are just trying to inflate the legal issues to try and make a case against it. Just as net neutrality in 2003 did not destroy the Internet, regulation of ISPs as common carriers won’t either. As ISPs cry foul, they are playing dirty with our Internet access.