Net Neutrality: What It Is and What It Isn’t

On Thursday, November 13, Rasmussen Reports published a new survey they say reveals that a majority of Americans object to net neutrality. According to the polling group, 61 percent of respondents “strongly oppose so-called ‘net neutrality’ efforts that would allow the federal government to regulate the Internet.” However, after looking over the questions Rasmussen asked, it is clear that there is a misunderstanding over what net neutrality is actually about.

A Quick Explanation of What Net Neutrality is All About

Net neutrality is the principle that the Internet should be free and open — plain and simple. It is the principle that the government and the market should treat all information accessible on the Internet equally without discrimination based on user, content, platform, or which medium the information is communicated.

Essentially, advocates of net neutrality believe that they should be able to access and share online information easily, without interference from a third party — and while this does include the government, it also includes corporations like Internet service providers (ISPs). Under a system completely free from government regulation, for example, ISPs can strong arm companies to accept higher prices for faster download speeds or even limit or block what content customers are able to access based on the corporation’s business interests.

Take Comcast as an example.

In February 2014, Comcast struck a deal with Netflix to allow the company to stream movies and shows at faster speeds in order to improve the quality of their service to customers. It was not the first deal of its kind to be made by Comcast, but it garnered much more attention than previous deals because of the companies involved. Now, some will argue that there is nothing wrong with this. Companies and consumers who want a better product will usually have to pay more for it.

However, what wasn’t heavily reported at the time was what happened during the months of negotiations between the two companies. A closer look at Netflix download speeds show that they plummeted under Comcast during the negotiations process and they didn’t turnaround until after a deal was made.

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This is, as John Oliver puts it, the equivalent of a mob shakedown. Comcast strong-armed Netflix to make a deal that went mostly in Comcast’s favor.

While there is no documented evidence that ISPs have gone so far as to block customers from viewing content these corporations view as bad for their business interests (something that would most certainly have an adverse effect on business), there is evidence that some ISPs are already manipulating the market by targeting Internet-based companies and are essentially picking winners and losers in the process.

By creating a system in which companies pay higher prices for faster download speeds, some companies are going to benefit more than others; namely, the biggest and wealthiest companies. Netflix can afford to pay for faster speeds to stream its content. A startup company or a smaller company would not be able to and an inability to compete in the market will force these companies to exit the market altogether.

This process of picking winners and losers in the online market creates what is often referred to as a “closed Internet.” This is what advocates of net neutrality want to avoid. Proponents want to protect an open Internet and understand that the irony of a free market is that there must be some regulation in place to protect the market’s freedom and to ensure competition is encouraged, not discouraged.

Who Is Shaping The Debate on Net Neutrality?

On Monday, President Barack Obama made it clear that not only does he support net neutrality, but he supports reclassifying the Internet as a utility under Title II of the Telecommunications Act so that the FCC could implement net neutrality rules that can survive judicial scrutiny. The FCC has tried a couple of times to enforce net neutrality, but these rules were struck down in federal court.

This process of picking winners and losers in the online market creates what is often referred to as a 'closed Internet.'
“In plain English, I am asking [the FCC] to recognize that for most Americans, the Internet has become an essential part of everyday communication and everyday life,” the president said in a video statement.

Net neutrality, Obama argues, would mean consumers will always have the freedom to decide what content they get to look at — not their ISP. Additionally, the president says ISPs should not be able to slow down some content and speed up others (a process known as “throttling”) based on what services the company prefers, and should not limit competition on the Internet through paid prioritization — creating a tiered system for bandwidth speeds.

Not censoring content. Not limiting competition. Making sure the blogger on the laptop can get information off the Internet as easily and efficiently as a major company. These are the general principles of net neutrality.

Now, look at some of the questions Rasmussen asked respondents in its survey:

  1. How closely have you followed recent news reports about so-called Internet “neutrality” issues?
  2. Should the Internet remain “open” without regulation and censorship or should the Federal Communications Commission regulate the Internet like it does radio and television?
  3. How concerned are you that if the FCC does gain regulatory control over the Internet it will lead to government efforts to control online content or promote a political agenda?
  4. What is the best way to protect those who use the Internet — more government regulation or more free market competition?

Based on the answers to the above questions, Rasmussen reports that 61 percent of Americans are opposed to net neutrality. Yet, these questions completely miss the point of net neutrality, which either comes from a misunderstanding of the fundamental principles of net neutrality or Rasmussen asked these questions this specific way to twist the dialogue to fit a certain narrative.

After the president released his statements on net neutrality, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) tweeted that such policies would be the equivalent of “Obamacare for the Internet.”

The Internet almost collectively slammed Cruz for these comments, including The Oatmeal, which took it upon itself to explain net neutrality to the senator in the simplest way possible. The website concluded two things about Cruz: (1) When he accepted campaign funds from telecom lobbyists last year, he was asked to publicly smear net neutrality; and (2) he doesn’t know what net neutrality is — which is a fair assumption based on his tweet.

The first conclusion is difficult to prove. He may have accepted campaign dollars from big telecommunication companies like Comcast, but he could just as easily oppose net neutrality because Obama came out in support of it — maybe (i.e. likely) both. The standard, hardline partisan reaction in Washington is if the other side comes out in favor of something, the first priority is to oppose it by linking it to an unpopular law like the Affordable Care Act.

While Rasmussen has been characterized as having a conservative bias, much like Public Policy Polling is often characterized as having a liberal bias, it is not entirely clear what specific interest the group has in this debate. Unlike Cruz, there are no partisan points to score or lobbyist dollars to collect. Maybe the survey was influenced by an ideological stance that favors “Big Business” or maybe the questions came from a general misunderstanding of what net neutrality means and how the FCC operates (an independent agency made up of a bipartisan committee). This is left up to the individual to speculate on.

However, a few things are clear. Net neutrality is not about closing the Internet through government regulations, but keeping it open. Net neutrality is not about the government regulating the Internet like it does radio and television; it is not about censorship, but preventing third parties from acting like censors. It is not about limiting competition, but protecting it. And, the current lack of rules means corporations get to decide just how good a free and open Internet is for business; especially, since it has become an essential part of daily life.

Net neutrality is something that is supported by people across the political spectrum, and is not a partisan issue — or it shouldn’t be anyway.