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Network Neutrality, which literally protects freedom of speech, has become a controversial concept in the U.S.
The Internet is an essential commodity in contemporary life. No one disagrees. However, not everyone agrees on the relevance of network neutrality.
Net neutrality was founded on the idea that the Internet is open to all, with all websites treated equally, whatever the platform used to access them.
It upholds the idea that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like Verizon and Comcast should not transfer selected data into “fast lanes” so users can access them faster, and, on the other hand, block or discriminate against other content to slow them down, so users cannot access them easily.
The idea upheld is also to provide this service like a utility, and prevent discrimination in delivering its service; a city’s water supply is a utility service that affords the same water pressure to all, considering as immaterial, user identity or reason for consumption.
In other words, an ISP should not be allowed to make a huge global corporation’s website faster than a small business website. The inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, himself, says,
“It’s time to recognize the internet as a basic human right. It means guaranteeing affordable access for all, ensuring internet packets are delivered without commercial or political discrimination, and protecting the privacy and freedom of web users regardless of where they live.”
In fact, the United Nations Human Rights Council, in 2012, determined that connecting to the internet is a human right. The UN Resolution condemned all attempts to block free speech online, and stated in conclusion, that "the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular, freedom of expression." The resolution was updated and unanimously re-adopted twice, in 2014 and in 2016.
This principle of being fair to all content and websites, took on enhanced significance during the global stay-at-home orders and consequently extensive remote work situations.
For instance, at least 66% of employees in the U.S. worked remotely at least part of the time during the COVID-19 pandemic. A recent Gallup survey found that nearly 7 out of 10 employees still work remotely all or part of the time, with half of them saying they would prefer to continue remote work in the future.
An extensive survey carried out by the World Economic Forum COVID Action Platform found that 98% of people surveyed said they would like the option to work remotely for the rest of their careers.
Thus, millions of people benefited from net neutrality during the pandemic, as they were able to access all the information they needed with equal ease, as they worked from the safety of their homes. Thus, net neutrality is ardently supported by human rights, civil rights, and consumer advocacy groups, and many major websites.
The term “network neutrality” was coined way back in 2003, in a paper pertaining to online discrimination by Tim Wu, Professor of Law at Columbia University.
This was a time that internet users at home were prevented by some broadband providers from accessing virtual private networks (VPNs), while other broadband providers blocked internet users from using WiFi routers. Professor Wu was concerned that these restrictive measures would, in the long run, dampen the arrival of new technologies. Thus, his paper called for anti-discrimination rules.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), an independent U.S. federal agency regulating communications by radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable across the U.S., tried to enforce net neutrality protections under Presidents George Bush and Obama.
In 2005, the FCC banned ISPs from blocking legal content or preventing customers from connecting devices of their choice to the internet. But the FCC lost several legal battles with broadband providers, in the intervening years.
In November 2014, President Obama said, “We cannot allow Internet Service Providers to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas. …I am asking the FCC to answer the call of almost 4 million public comments, and implement the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality.” The rules would ensure no blocking, no throttling, increased transparency and no paid prioritization.
Despite objections from U.S. telecom and cable companies and business groups, the FCC passed a sweeping net neutrality regulation in 2015, which was subsequently revoked by a Republican-controlled FCC in December 2017, with the option for only Congress or the courts to block this decision.
Thus, the future of net neutrality is now in the hands of Congress, the courts, and the states. In January 2018, 21 State Attorneys-General sued the FCC to block the new rules and restore the previous ones. Several consumer-advocacy groups did the same. In 2019, a federal court ruled in the FCC’s favor, but said the agency could not overrule state-level net neutrality laws.
In 2018, several states passed their individual net neutrality laws, starting with Washington in March 2018, followed by Oregon soon after. California’s net neutrality laws are the most comprehensive, but are currently on hold, being legally challenged by the federal government. Meanwhile, Governors of Hawaii, Montana, New Jersey, New York, and Vermont have passed executive orders banning state agencies from doing business with broadband providers that refuse to accept net neutrality.
Indeed, without net neutrality, ISPs will steal the freedom of the Internet from its users, and maneuver internet traffic to earn more profit. Instead of free access, customers will be forced to choose package plans on Over the Top (OTT) services and applications like Skype, WhatsApp and Facebook, to name a few.
Worse still, it will spell doom for online innovation, with little room for internet startups, because ISPs will favor existing monopolies.
As online designer Brian Curtin, says, “Net neutrality is like a library, it should be open to everyone. It’s not right to prohibit the freedom to access it.”
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