Since the creation of the internet, the question of who is allowed to do what and to whom has been an ongoing issue—much like the real world itself. With more than three billion people signing on each day, the world’s biggest public network has come to symbolize the struggle for regulation and the need for equity among all users, both professional and personal. And as this digital drama continues to unfold, discussion has given way to disagreement as political parties and internet users alike fight about future governance of the internet, the role of politicians, and whether or not this invaluable resource is, in fact, a human right—or just a privilege for the wealthy.
The right to internet access, sometimes referred to as the freedom to connect, is not just an ideal hope for the digital masses; it was codified into a Declaration of Principles at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in 2003. Convened under the auspices of the United Nations (UN), hefty analysis and negotiation between various governments, business, and civil representatives took place to reaffirm the critical nature of information and the valuable part it plays in society and the lives of individuals. In this regard, the principles ironed out at the Summit not only clarified the need for equity among internet users, they strengthened and solidified its future as a fair and inclusive digital environment.
The Internet Becomes A Right
As a result of WSIS, states around the nation were expected to be more responsible for the level of online access they provided their citizens, and users around the country were ensured complete usability of internet space. The WSIS Declaration specifically outlined “their common desire and commitment to build a people-centered, inclusive, and development-oriented information society, where everyone can create, access, utilize, and share information and knowledge, enabling individuals, communities, and peoples to achieve their full potential in promoting their sustainable development and improving their quality of life.”
Here are some of the other key takeaways:
- The internet is a fundamental aspect of human freedom as is defined through democracy, free speech, and the mutual respect among people.
- Via the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to express their views online without interference and to “seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through media regardless of frontiers.”
- Findings from the BBC World Service suggest four out of five internet users believe the platform is a non-negotiable right of human beings.
- The internet allows people to instantly and inexpensively communicate and connect across all international borders wherever possible.
- Cutting off or restricting internet access, regardless of the reasoning, is a violation of intellectual property right law and breaks the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Net Neutrality Is Born
The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) followed suit in 2005 and established similar guidelines that essentially created the future tenets of online governance. These standards existed only in theory for the next five years until the establishment of the Open Internet Order galvanized them into a set of principles known today as net neutrality. The key tenets are simple:
- No blocking
- No slowing of transmission
- No unreasonable discrimination
As reasonable and fair as these guidelines appear, they have recently been devoured by the capitalist desire to squeeze out as much data and profit as possible from the internet—and those who use it. The increasingly opaque and competitive nature of the online landscape has emboldened big fish internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast, Verizon, and Xfinity to limit the movement and access of other, less powerful online entities, as well as the customers they serve.
Without net neutrality in place, ISPs are able to stop users from visiting certain sites and can even slow down various services—including beloved platforms like Netflix—and redirect people to different places, all of which clearly violate established internet rights. Net neutrality addresses this by requiring ISPs to connect all customers, regardless of who they are, to lawful online content without offering preferential treatment to certain websites or services. And more importantly, it restricts these corporate titans from creating a fast lane for wealthy users and a slow lane for those unwilling or unable to pay more.
In a nutshell, net neutrality is the only thing stopping companies from buying priority access to ISP customers, which means rich companies like Google or Facebook can actually pay ISPs to give them faster, more reliable online connectivity than their competitors. This paid privilege essentially negates the notion of free enterprise and healthy corporate competition. The move is obviously based on the desire to maximize profit and opportunity; however, it has become a major hindrance to smaller companies and start-ups who can’t afford to purchase this level of VIP access. And as a result, these little fish are left at a digital disadvantage simply because they don’t have the funds to buy their online “rights.”
The Internet Becomes A Privilege
Under the rules of net neutrality, broadband service was considered a utility which meant the FCC was entitled to broad control and oversight of ISPs. During his presidency, Obama enacted the expansion of net neutrality, as he felt it was “a victory for consumers, free speech, and American innovation.” But in June 2018, the Republican-led FCC voted to repeal the rules under the Trump administration and essentially reinstated an ISPs right to charge more for certain access, prioritize their own content, and offer preferential treatment to certain websites who are willing to pay higher fees. And as part of this shift, oversight of internet protection transitioned from the FCC to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), both of whom now work collaboratively to eliminate basic net neutrality rules and empower broadband providers to block or throttle back your services.
Since the FCC made this new decision, controversy around internet regulations has erupted and further split party lines. While Republicans agree the U.S. government should remain hands-off in the process so as not to stifle innovation or business, Democrats believe Open Internet regulations are critical to a fair and equitable online environment. But regardless of political affiliation, anyone who uses the internet should be gravely concerned about these new moves, as they will affect the level of control people have over their online content. More importantly, the repeal strips users of their digital rights and subjects their online experience to corporate greed. For example, ISPs may soon charge customers more money to watch Netflix, as it will no longer be part of a monthly television bill. And ISPs are likely to “bundle” certain services like those provided by social media to effectively make a profit from your use of platforms like Facebook or Twitter.
The Battle Goes On
Over 20 states in the U.S. have already filed lawsuits to stop the repeal—some even going so far as to establish net neutrality legislation within their own borders—leading many to believe a major digital showdown may be on the horizon. House Speaker Paul Ryan has received dozens of complaints from opposing senators, all of whom are urging him to vote on the issue. But the FCC shows no signs of backing down and recently established the authority to prevent individual states from devising laws to avoid the net neutrality repeal.
So, if you are among the millions of Americans who disagree with this new classification of internet access, which may soon affect your online experience—not to mention your wallet—contact Congress and let them know you support the Open Internet Order, net neutrality, and digital liberties for all.