A Net Gain

The Editorial Board explores recent policy changes regarding net neutrality and what they mean for the general public. 

You may not have noticed, but you almost lost your right to a free and open internet last week. Siding with consumers and small businesses, the Federal Communications Commission made a major decision toward preserving net neutrality on Feb. 26. It was an uphill battle fought against major internet service providers, and despite the odds, average consumers won their right to continue using the internet the way they have been doing so since its inception.

Many people don’t understand much about net neutrality, and if you do, feel free to skip the next two or three paragraphs. For those of you who are a little behind on U.S. technology policy, net neutrality is the idea that internet service providers like Comcast don’t get to make decisions about which websites work faster. In other words, Google gets sent to your computer just as fast as Reddit or Netflix or any other website. They’re all equal. And that’s net neutrality, the way it has always been.

But last year, the Supreme Court ruled that net neutrality was unconstitutional, and the FCC had the decision to either keep it or throw it out. Internet service providers like Comcast wanted it thrown out so that way they could charge websites extra to get to consumers faster. Even worse, they could charge consumers extra to get certain websites at a reasonable speed. What that could look like is you needing to pay an extra $10 per month to not have your Netflix streaming speed choked, or Average Joe’s startup website being unable to afford paying for a fast speed, making his new internet businesses harder to start. It could even mean that ISPs could block out any website they wanted to or charge you to use certain websites, similar to the way they currently charge for certain channels in a cable package. Obviously this would be terrible for the consumer and for a free market, but absolutely fantastic for a few colossal service-provider companies, especially since they have virtually no competition.

It turned into a battle for the soul of the internet, and at the center of it, the FCC needed to decide to either keep net neutrality or to do away with it. It didn’t help that Tom Wheeler, the Chairman of the FCC and one of its five voting members, used to be the CEO of a telecommunications lobby, a blatant conflict of interest. Although Wheeler was initially against net neutrality, he ended up siding with consumers in a 3–2 vote to make the internet a telecommunications service, assuring net neutrality for all Americans.

Since policy seems to often favor large corporations over people, many cynics might be wondering how exactly consumers weren’t screwed over this time. The optimistic answer is that a lot of people, especially those from tech-savvy communities like Reddit, wrote to the FCC, with a staggering total of four million consumers formally recommending that the FCC vote in favor of net neutrality. It would be nice to think that due to the overwhelming public support for a free and open internet, the FCC listened.

A more cynical answer is that the FCC was probably swayed just as much — if not more — by a few giant corporations in favor of net neutrality, namely Netflix and Google. In fact, some of the last-minute revisions to the net neutrality bill were made specifically because Google asked for them. Google has weighed in heavily on the issue since September, and that could certainly explain Wheeler’s gradual 180, shifting his opinion from opposition toward to acceptance of net neutrality in the last few months.

It’s scary that the internet community came so close to losing some of its fundamental consumer rights, only to be saved by a bunch of nerds on Reddit and similar sites and a few large tech companies (also nerds).  So next time you feel like binge-watching “Friends” or “House of Cards,” go out and thank a computer nerd. He or she probably helped save your internet.