What is Net Neutrality?

A little-known legislation with huge ramifications for the future of the internet

by Breanna Beers

For most of the history of the internet, net neutrality has been an unstated but basic assumption of how the online world operates. Net neutrality is the principle that internet providers should be prohibited from artificially blocking or slowing down particular websites or applications: content is not restricted based on what it is or where it comes from.

Under this assumption, a private blog has the same potential to reach consumers as Google or Facebook does. However, internet service providers (ISPs) quietly regulated the way content on the internet was transmitted for financial gain until it was made illegal in 2015.

Soon, however, that legislation may be reversed. Recently, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposed to eliminate net neutrality. This would allow ISPs to alter the way that online content gets to consumers.

Source: Survey of Cedarville Students. [Infographic by Nathan Overlock]

Dr. Marc Clauson, professor of history and law at Cedarville University, supports this decision. He says net neutrality limits companies’ rights to make profit in the way they choose. By charging differentially for different speeds of access, companies can both increase their revenue and reduce the clogging of the internet “pipes.”

“If there are limits to speed that are physical, then you are going to have some people who are going to be slowed down as it gets more crowded,” Clauson said. “Maybe that means [the ISPs]  should expand their capacity, and maybe they will, but that will take time … so what they could do in the meantime is have differential pricing, which keeps some people in, some people out. It effectively rations the use of the internet.”

There are two ways this would take shape. First, if net neutrality was eliminated, ISPs could begin to require website producers to pay a fee to continue to have their content delivered at the current speed: any producers who refused to pay would have their website slowed down.

Second, ISPs could choose to simply speed up services that promote their own interests or that their company has a financial stake in. They could also slow down or block websites that compete with their company or interests. For instance, before Apple introduced FaceTime in 2010, AT&T forced Apple to block Skype and other internet-based calling services on the iPhone, compelling customers to use texting and phone minutes under AT&T’s cellular plan instead.

By “rationing” the availability of content on the internet in this way, the market creates the most efficient solution to the use of bandwidth provided by ISPs: whichever companies can pay the most get the most bandwidth to reach consumers.

Clauson believes that this is excessive government intervention in a situation that would be better served by letting the market determine the course of the future.

However, economics professor Dr. Bert Wheeler said he believes that far from expanding government interventionism, net neutrality actually limits overall regulation and promotes competition among content producers.

“If you allow equal access to the internet, that will allow people to compete on a level framework,” Wheeler said. “What I don’t think the government should do is regulate who gets the bandwidth and who does not. I also don’t think the private firms should decide either … from a free market perspective, as long as everyone abides by the same rules, it’s OK for the government to set the rules and enforce the rules. It’s when the government starts choosing who wins and who loses that we want to pull back. And right now, I see that also being true of internet service providers, because of the power and size of those firms.”

In other words, net neutrality is not a regulation of the internet itself, but a law that prohibits both private companies and the government from regulating what content is transmitted online. This distinction is critical to Wheeler, as he believes that without net neutrality, the resulting restriction of online content by ISPs could result in censorship of certain viewpoints.

“The unfortunate reality is that with our very large corporations working so closely with government, there might be government action through a private firm at some point in time,” Wheeler said. “That’s part of the reason I think we should maintain net neutrality: to keep the avenues for dissent open.”

In a survey conducted by Cedars in September, represented by the graphic (right), most students were unaware of the controversy surrounding net neutrality. As the internet will likely continue to grow as a staple of modern communication, it is important that students engage in conversations about net neutrality and the future of the web.

Breanna Beers is a freshman molecular biology and journalism double major and an off-campus news writer for Cedars. She loves exercising curiosity, hiking new trails, and quoting The Princess Bride whether it’s relevant or not.

1 Reply to "What is Net Neutrality?"

  • comment-avatar
    Tom TenHove November 11, 2017 (9:24 pm)

    Good job educating people on this topic.