You might have heard of net neutrality. It’s a dull as dirt name that masks a hugely important issue. A couple of years ago, there were many attempts to bring this regulatory issue to the front of the American consciousness in order to protect it. And it worked! But now, like a specter rising from the grave, it has returned to haunt us with the advent of a new administration.
Remember this name: Ajit Pai. He’s the reason net neutrality anxieties are bubbling up again. But first, let me explain some things.
Net neutrality refers to the idea that all traffic on the internet should be treated equally by internet service providers (ISPs)*. In a non-net neutral scenario, a company like Amazon could pay ISPs to prioritize people visiting their website, so that Amazon would perform faster than other websites.
If that doesn’t already raise alarm bells for you, you probably lean more towards free market economics. Let me disabuse you of that notion with this alternative scenario. In a non-net neutral scenario, a company like Amazon would have to pay ISPs to prioritize people visiting their website, so that Amazon could perform faster than other websites.
Net neutrality is essentially a way for ISPs to extort companies dependent on the internet for performance. For those who think that net neutrality impedes free market economics, remember that ISPs don’t exactly operate in a competitive environment to begin with, which is a whole other issue. So the extortion scenario is probably applicable.
Don’t worry though. Net neutrality is a principle in place in the internet we live with today. The agency tasked with protecting this important principle is the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC). And that’s where Mr. Pai comes in.
Ajit Pai is Donald Trump’s appointee as the next chairman of the FCC, replacing Obama’s appointee Tom Wheeler. Wheeler, despite his former status as a lobbyist for the ISPs, became a staunch protector of net neutrality, and was lauded by net neutrality advocates for his efforts.
Pai, who had been an FCC commissioner since 2012 before his elevation to chairman, has expressed no such reservations about the elimination of net neutrality in the past. We should discuss that past because it illustrates how this is all still unsettled law and how precarious net neutrality is, new administration or not.
2014. Yes, I told you it wasn’t that far back. Net neutrality was a general norm, but as the grid got smarter, so did the ability of the companies who run it to control access. While the issue came to a head in 2014 due to some high(ish) profile cases of violations of net neutrality, the issue had been simmering since the internet became a widely available and increasingly necessary tool in the 1990s. ISPs have been careful about which cases they test non-net neutral pipelines on in the past; often the target of slower internet speeds have been things like peer-to-peer networks doing sharing of questionable legality.
By 2014, the FCC had a proposal on the table to create dual system, a so-called “fast lane” for those who pay, and a lane for all other internet traffic. The opposing proposal was for the FCC to reclassify the internet as a public good, which would protect it from certain private interests much in the same way utilities like water, power, and gas are regulated.
The FCC is an independent agency governed by five commissioners, one of which is chairman. This board actually voted 3-2 in favor of including the dual lane system in their final set of regulations, which sparked immediate backlash. President Obama even took an extraordinary step of weighing in and recommending that the FCC take steps instead to protect net neutrality. Eventually, the public pressure was enough that in their finalized regulations, they reversed their initial vote and classified broadband as a public good.
As of 2017, there are now two vacancies for FCC commissioners, including Wheeler’s spot, as he stepped down at the end of the Obama administration. Further, the FCC is now led by Pai, one of the commissioners who voted in favor of the dual lane system and has been vocal about going further to erode net neutrality. Net neutrality advocates are concerned that Pai will use his new role to revisit the regulations and potentially issue a new set less favorable to net neutrality.
The check on the FCC’s power of regulation is Congress. However, if that in itself already isn’t cold comfort, you should know that during the 2014 kerfuffle, they tried to bypass the FCC process entirely by passing legislation preventing the FCC from regulating the internet as a public good. Those bills died in committee (as many do), but Congress was not an advocate for net neutrality then, and the composition of Congress has not changed appreciably since.
The continued debate on net neutrality in the US has effects around the globe as well. Although the internet is not as dominated by the US as it once was**, the US still serves as a significant leader in internet policy. The US’s example on net neutrality policy will set a tone internationally on the issue.
With all that background, the whole net neutrality debate may strike you as a spat between corporations, ISPs versus content providers. It isn’t. It affects you as well. Think about all the musicians who got their start on the internet like Us the Duo, Phoebe Ryan, Chance The Rapper, and countless others. For every musician you’ve ever heard of who got their start via the internet, there are hundreds who are still fighting for a chance.
The internet has provided these artists a direct portal to you, the listener, the consumer, the fan, that is unprecedented in the history of music. Artists regularly use platforms such as Soundcloud, Bandcamp, YouTube, Vine (RIP), and more to share their music directly with people. There’s also social media, which gives them the ability to speak directly to you, and gives us a window into their life behind the curtain. There’s also crowdfunding, which allows us to give to them to support the work they do directly. Before all of this provided by the internet, there were middle men who controlled access to artists and their music, and controlled who got to be a professional musician and who didn’t. Now, there’s an explosion of creativity because we are closer to musicians, and the barrier to entry for them is lower.
All that is facilitated by the internet. But now, ISPs want to replace the role that labels once played as middle men for musicians. They want to control access again. In a non-net neutral scenario, the content providers who pay (and can afford to) will have a direct channel to your attention, at the expense of all the smaller content providers who can’t. It’s a noose on innovation that helps the rich get richer and kills potential competition in the cradle by not giving them even the opportunity to grow.
Net neutrality policy in the US is a complex issue, and we didn’t even get into all the intricacies of FCC policy. And yet, it matters so much, to us as consumers, to musicians as creators, to everyone who uses the internet and wants it to stay the weird, wonderful, wildly creative place it is today, for better and worse.
But because we have not been able to cement net neutrality as the law of the land, we must keep pushing forward. We cannot let the vagaries of who happens to be the party in power, or who happens to be chairing the FCC, determine how close to the edge of the cliff we get. Ajit Pai is the chairman of the FCC. We can’t change that now. But we can change how his policies are viewed, in the public and by Congress.
Call your congressman. Be active. Care about net neutrality. And win this battle. Because net neutrality is important and should be the law of the land. But it’s also such a boring issue, and I hate that we have to keep talking about it.
*ISP: That’s your Verizon FiOS, Optimum, Comcast, the company formerly known as Time Warner Cable (now Spectrum in an attempt to make you disassociate them from their bad customer service reputation), Google Fiber, etc, as well as the data side of your cell phone providers. Simply put, the companies with the actual wires that bring you the wonders of the internet.
**This is a bit of an oversimplification, but did you know that the internet was once governed almost entirely by one guy named Jon Postel who worked on the original US Department of Defense project that became the internet. Even after his death, it took until 2016 for internet governance to entirely be transferred from the US Department of Commerce to an international nonprofit (that is still based in the US).