Net Neutrality: Benefit or Burden

The United States government has enacted regulations in a variety of areas throughout the policy spectrum. These regulations serve a variety of purposes. Some are enacted in order to restrict the usage of processes or materials that may harm the environment or the common good of the people. Others are enacted to extract revenue from the vital functions of the economy in order to produce monetary resources for the government to fund essential services and programs. Still other regulations are made to help spur innovation but also to  control the growth of technology. As new products are engineered, the common good of all is kept as a main priority and the national security interests of the country are preserved. One of the major recent developments in the field of engineering regulations is the net neutrality policies of the FCC, which is the handing over of the governance of the internet to an international regulatory body instead of maintaining domestic control of the internet.

The principle behind net neutrality is to ensure that all individuals have access to the rapidly expanding technology that is the World Wide Web. In this age, a large portion of the news and other information disseminated to individuals is done through the medium of the internet. Thus, many regulators and policymakers see regulating the internet and preserving a free and open internet as being essential to maintaining and promoting the free expression of information to all people. As far as the United States is specifically is concerned, the net neutrality regulations deal with how internet service providers (ISPs) can change the speeds at which people can access data and how ISPs prioritize certain customers over other customers.

In late 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) passed a series of rules that enacted these concepts of net neutrality. Supporters of these proposals praised these measures, arguing that they would ensure that service providers would not slow down data based on what was being accessed. This concern particularly involves internet streaming services, as companies such as Comcast might slow down the access speed to services such as Netflix in favor of promoting their own TV service (in the case of Comcast, Xfinity TV). As the argument logically follows, if the internet service provider can slow down service to some websites, they could potentially slow down the speed so much that the website is barely accessible. This is particularly pertinent in the case of mobile providers who throttle the data of the customers who exceed their data pools; except, instead of throttling because of exceeding the data pool, the customer would be throttled based on the website that she or he is  trying to access. Supporters of the net neutrality regulations would argue that allowing such a practice to continue would violate the Constitutional standards regarding the free expression and transmission of data. Also, there is concern that allowing such throttling to continue could lead to the internet service providers shutting out access for consumers to important news stories, or potentially using this tactic in a politically motivated way to only allow certain news sources to be accessed with the appropriate speed.

Opponents of the regulations believe that the United States government is overstepping its regulatory authority. As policymakers on this side of the issue would argue, the government should not be regulating the free market expression of ideas, and to regulate how the internet service providers provide their customers with access to data would be a violation of the free market freedom enjoyed by corporations in the United States. Additionally, sometimes corporations form partnerships to promote their services together, and to raise capital to improve the infrastructure for all users. For example, a company such as Comcast might form a special partnership to prioritize the data of Netflix over Hulu to encourage their customers to also choose Netflix. In doing this, both corporations are able to raise more revenue, which can in turn be used to improve the services that are provided to their customers. Opponents of net neutrality might also argue that the government cannot act in a purely unbiased way, and that by turning control of the internet in this manner to the government, not only might innovation be hampered, but that the government could eventually regulate which websites can and cannot be accessed. While the Obama Administration was very much a supporter of the Net Neutrality policies, President Donald Trump has indicated that many of these regulations could be revoked in the future, signaling a potential change that could have ramifications throughout the technology sector of the economy, and in turn, the United States’ economy as a whole.

The policies of net neutrality are hotly contested, going hand in hand with the control of the internet. Ever since the United States developed the internet in the advent of the Cold War, domestic control of the internet has been preserved, as has the free and open transmission of data. Recently, at the end of his second term, President Barack Obama handed over control of the internet from the domestic control to an international governing body under the umbrella of the United Nations. This has both positives and negatives. Supporters of this policy might argue that the global control of the internet can promote a greater diversity of viewpoints being expressed on the World Wide Web. However, opponents of the policy argue that this is a direct threat to the expression of ideas on this important medium. Countries such as China and Russia now have a say in how information is disseminated to people over the internet, and unlike the United States, these are not nations that value freedom of speech and expression. As time goes on, observing the ramifications of this policy change, as well as the stance of the FCC and other internet regulatory bodies on Net Neutrality, will be vital to maintaining an open frontier for the free expression of information, and the freedom for engineers to develop technologies that can be accessed by all.