Net Neutrality Must Be Kept Safe As The Internet Expands



By Bernice Chen, Opinions Editor

Nowadays, the majority of America has access to the internet. More people have been gaining the ability to use the network, and about 90 percent of American adults can now visit the internet, with 77 percent of Americans doing so on a daily basis.  As the internet’s accessibility and our dependence on it increase in the U.S., governmental policies regarding its usage are becoming more important to both politicians and civilians.

The debates brought up in recent years dealing with the internet have mainly been based off net neutrality, which is the principle that internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all data and traffic traveling over their networks fairly without favoring certain users, platforms, or applications.

Last year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rolled back Obama-era national net neutrality rules on a 3-2 vote. Put in place in 2015, these rules required ISPs to treat all websites equally and could, for example, prevent Verizon from blocking or slowing down Google to bring more attention to Yahoo and AOL, companies that Verizon owns. This deregulation by the Trump administration, however, essentially enabled companies to pay providers for “fast lanes” that could provide quicker content delivery to consumers.

Companies, civilians, and local governments responded to the decision with frustration and outrage, concerned that net neutrality was being shoved to the side by the federal government. Others took a more direct approach, with more than 20 states taking the FCC to court over the repeal. New bills have also been introduced in over half of the states in America, with politicians hoping to reestablish and preserve net neutrality principles.

One of these states, California, enacted legislation that was even more restrictive than the 2015 FCC rules. Their bill, considered to be the biggest opposing response to the repeal so far, passed easily through the government. This made California the fourth state after Oregon, Washington, and Vermont to create laws regarding net neutrality after the FCC ruling. Packed with strict legislation, Senate Bill 822 prohibits providers from hindering websites, charging those websites for faster speed, excusing preferred apps from following customer data caps, or charging consumers more to visit certain sites. Although the law is only limited to within the state, California has often been shown to set a precedent for other states and even companies to follow the same standards. Already, New York is considering legislation for net neutrality that mirrors California’s.

Because of the new bill, however, California is now facing a lawsuit from the Justice Department. Citing the Commerce Clause of the Constitution (the internet is considered interstate commerce because servers from various states are used for internet access), the federal government is claiming that its policies overrule local laws, so California’s new bill should be invalidated because it conflicts with the FCC’s order. “States do not regulate interstate commerce,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said. “The federal government does.” Other parties, such as ISPs, have already joined into the battle against California, citing increased cost and difficulty that state rules give telecom companies.

Nevertheless, California’s government is staying firm on continuing to defend the bill. “California has the right to exercise its sovereign powers under the Constitution,” Xavier Becerra, the state’s Attorney General, stated. “We’re prepared to demonstrate that when it comes to protecting 40 million consumers and their right to access information.” Supporters of the bill are voicing that the FCC’s act of deregulation without a method of replacement abdicated their responsibility to regulate ISPs, especially because the Commission said that other agencies should take a more active role in protecting net neutrality. Thus, the FCC has no authority to control net neutrality laws enacted by states.

As the internet continues developing, the importance of accessibility and speed becomes more important. There are a couple reasons why upholding net neutrality is needed. First among those is the danger to small companies. Although some argue that loosening net neutrality laws would encourage innovation, the more likely outcome is that startups will be prevented from growing. Bigger businesses could pay ISPs to prioritize their websites or products, but many newer applications either wouldn’t have the resources to buy fast lanes or wouldn’t even be able to set up a meeting with providers to make a deal.

Unfortunately for these startups that need that accessibility, having to pay for faster internet reduces sustainability and minimizes flexibility to expand and appeal to consumers. Video or conference services may especially become less accessible because of their need for fast speed, restricting teachers from being able to educate and lecture students from afar or business partners from being able to communicate with each other.

Another aspect concerning the repeal of net neutrality is how consumers could be harmed. Households, especially in rural areas, have only one or a few broadband providers that reach them. If ISPs are allowed to force more payment from its users for decent internet, then these consumers will have to pay more or stay with slow speed and less access to content. Poorer families would find it hard or near impossible to afford this convenience.

Undermining net neutrality changes how the internet operates economically and socially. As New York University Professor Nicholas Economides says, people would face a “distorted internet, where information is prioritized according to the financial interests of telecom and cable companies.”

Net neutrality is difficult to protect without some form of regulation in place, so a new solution needs to be presented. The best case scenario would be for Congress to pass a replacement of the net neutrality laws that offers substantial protection for consumers and small businesses. However, if no legislation can make it through, the next best solution would likely be to depend on state governments, since the FCC released itself from responsibility on this issue when they repealed the 2015 laws. This is why the California regulation is crucial – if it wins the case against the Justice Department and ISPs, which it should, then it will become a leader in enacting net neutrality rules. Businesses and states will be encouraged to follow along, enforcing net neutrality even without the federal government’s help.

Net neutrality needs to be kept safe as the internet expands. For the benefit of consumer fairness and innovation, states should be encouraged to fight back against the government’s rollback, and even Congress should be urged to restore federal rules, if at all possible. Putting new regulations in place, as California is attempting now, is necessary to ensure that the internet doesn’t become an unfair or discriminatory tool.