The independent news organization of Duke University

Don't be neutral on net neutrality

On December 14, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will vote on a proposal by chairman Ajit Pai to repeal net neutrality. While the term has been generating a significant amount of buzz, the complex web of interests and politics behind it can make it difficult to understand. Net neutrality refers to an Obama-era FCC measure to regulate the internet as a utility and “[prohibit] broadband providers from elevating one kind of content over another.” With its future in the balance as of late, this hot button regulatory classification has been the subject of heated—and potentially fabricated—debate in the internet comment section of the FCC website, a discussion forum only possible because of the very utility whose fate the proposal controls. This decision will undoubtedly have ramifications for all of us, and these ongoing exchanges allow us to evaluate the power money has in our political system.

Internet service provision in the U.S. is dominated by a few major companies: AT&T, Cox, Charter, Verizon, CenturyLink and Comcast. With the AT&T and Time-Warner merger making headlines, this already truncated list of internet service providers may only get shorter. Because of current regulations, internet service providers “transfer [the data we send or receive] from one end of the network to another” but do not manipulate it. Without net neutrality, these major providers would be able to analyze the information we send or receive and interfere with our internet connection accordingly. In this way, the few dominant internet service providers will influence our day-to-day internet use even more than they already do, with more monetary incentive to do so. 

As debates have raged and tensions have increased, some have dubbed the reaction from pro-net neutrality activists as alarmist. Especially after chairman Ajit Pai’s children were harassed by protesters, many feel the disputes are getting out of hand. While not all methods of protest are justifiable, there is sufficient cause for concern with an upcoming vote on this proposal. Although internet service providers do not necessarily stand to gain from the promotion of some content over others, repealing net neutrality paves the way for monetary incentives to be established in the future. It is not unreasonable to envision a world where companies like AT&T or Comcast block traffic to some websites to push users toward websites who have paid for promotion. This type of manipulation not only affects consumers who may incur fees in order to access certain web content, but also disadvantages small companies who cannot afford the royalties associated with an internet that is not open and free. 

Supporters of Pai’s proposal, however, argue that these fees and monetary incentives either will not exist or will be outweighed by the benefits of a net neutrality repeal. In particular, repealing net neutrality would open doors to more infrastructural innovation on the internet and may lead to faster internet speeds overall. However, despite the reassuring messages from corporations like Comcast, it seems relatively unlikely that internet service providers would funnel money toward supporting a proposal that does not offer them financial benefits. Regulation is stopping them from charging money for unsponsored content and manipulating user data; without regulation, these companies have every reason to start doing so.

Most of us have never experienced an internet that isn’t an open, virtual library. While indefinitely loading web pages and buffering videos are common, we haven’t faced these inconveniences because our internet service providers had a stake in our usage. If this proposal is passed, the internet could look like a vastly different place. From The National Rifle Association, to large pharmaceutical companies, to other corporations within industries subject to regulation, American politics has a long history of being swayed by money. Net neutrality could become yet another victim of those lobbying forces. Instead of waiting for disappointment after the proposal is passed, we should heed the multitudes of warning signs, join the activism and call our representatives to show that this time, big business cannot have a louder voice than the majority. 


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