Net neutrality is the principle of keeping access to various sources of internet content equal and neutral to users without interference by the Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Net neutrality has been the standard for the internet since its beginning, but a recent court decision and subsequent actions by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) marks the beginning of a broad change in the way users will navigate through internet content. Since ISPs own the servers and network infrastructure through which information passes on the internet, the FCC has proposed new rules allowing the creation of “fast lanes” on the internet giving ISPs broad discretion in gate keeping and preferential treatment to content providers willing to pay them higher prices, thereby negating net neutrality principles.
Advocates of net neutrality fear that these rules will allow internet companies to block any websites they deem undesirable, choose winners and losers in the marketplace, and effectively censor free speech on the internet. If the ISPs can use bandwidth as leverage in business negotiations, the process may lead to censorship and blackouts. Net neutrality advocates maintain that the costs will be passed on to consumers regardless, whether it is the fees gathered from users paying for internet content providers or it is the rate they pay for internet service providers. The current situation is preferable because at least internet content is equal in accessibility, and companies have a level playing field in competition.
Critics of net neutrality believe that bandwidth prioritization is beneficial for managing the scarce resource of internet bandwidth. Paying fees to ISPs will promote an efficient allocation of bandwidth through competition in the internet content market. The internet infrastructure is challenged by a capacity problem due primarily to increasing popularity of bandwidth-intensive video services, such as provided by Netflix and YouTube. In addition to already existing anti-trust regulations, the new FCC rules will guarantee adequate protection that deals between carriers and content providers are reasonable and non-discriminatory. Also, enabling an additional stream of revenue from high bandwidth video services will subsidize and lower consumer internet service fees.
So, what do you think? Should net neutrality remain the dominant principle governing access to internet content? Or is it time to change to a fee-based bandwidth prioritization system?
Join us at the next SFDebate to explore and debate this question. Note that there is a $5 fee charged by the Commonwealth Club for non-members to the Club.