In a wide-ranging executive order released in early July, U.S. President Joe Biden made a call to the Federal Communications Commission to reinstate net neutrality rules that would require companies to treat all internet traffic equally. Net neutrality is important, some experts say, but its importance is cyclical, coming and going with different seasons. They say that consumers should be paying attention to what happens now, but they shouldn't be too worried about it.
The Biden administration has seen the digital divide grow over the past year as the COVID-19 pandemic affected households across the country. Admin officials say that the lack of competition is what is causing this divide.
The administration believes that reinstating the net neutrality rules adopted in 2015 under former President Barack Obama will ensure that big broadband companies do not abuse their power over their networks. Those rules were repealed under a Republican-led FCC during the Trump administration.
"Big providers can use their power to discriminatorily block or slow down online services," a fact sheet from the White House said. "The Obama-Biden Administration's FCC adopted net neutrality rules required these companies to treat all internet service equally, but this was undone in 2017."
What is Net Neutrality?
To put it simply, it's the basic principle that ensures all users have the same level of access when browsing the internet. It means that internet service providers (ISPs) cannot slow down, speed up, or block any service, apps on the best Android devices, or website.
Carmi Levy, a technology analyst, said in an interview that it also means that it does not allow for service providers to give preferential access to specific customers, applications, or services:
He explained that if we didn't have net neutrality, the internet could be comparable to a highway with a toll, "which could open the door to all manner of inequality among individuals, organizations, and nations."
"That's net neutrality, and advocates say we're in danger of losing that when carriers introduce restrictive and preferential policies like zero-rated services - where they don't charge some users for certain services, or allow all-you-can-stream access to some users, but not all," he said.
What happened in 2015 and 2017 with net neutrality?
Duncan Stewart, director of technology, media, and telecommunications research at Deloitte Canada, said in an interview that the concept of net neutrality isn't a new one and has been spoken about for years.
In 2015, the rules adopted under FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler meant that broadband service providers were not allowed to block or slow access to the internet or charge extra for faster access.
The 2015 FCC rules allowed the agency to police broadband abuses and ensured that broadband companies had to be more transparent on pricing.
In 2017, the FCC voted in favor of removing tough net neutrality rules that were put in place to prevent internet providers from blocking and throttling traffic and offering paid fast lanes. Instead, the new rules now indicate that companies can do this practice, so long as they publicly state they will do it.
Have I really experienced throttling of services because net neutrality was repealed?
While many experts would argue that this is the biggest reason we have a digital divide, Stewart says that in the past few years most consumers have not really been experiencing that much throttling globally.
He added that nowadays, even mobile phone plans have gotten so large that people are finding it hard to use up all their data, resulting in carriers not needing to throttle.
Stewart explained that undue preference that comes from net neutrality can only be a viable discussion if it is really a scarce resource, and "bandwidth and cap data, in general, are not a scarce resource at present."
Roger Entner, a telecom analyst and founder of Recon Analytics, agreed with Stewart adding that nothing really changed since net neutrality was repealed.
Why should I care about net neutrality if nothing really changed and technology is so good that it is outpacing the rules of net neutrality?
Levy said that we need to care about net neutrality because if it goes away, the "technological underpinning of modern society - a free and open internet that offers, in theory, equal opportunity to all - allows well-capitalized players to use their size and money to outcompete smaller, less-well-heeled users, like you and me."
Simply put, if the internet is not neutral, it won't be fair, effective, and efficient.
That being said, Stewart said that while it is an important topic, it's not really something that consumers should really worry about.
"Speaking as somebody who is doing research on tech media and telecom regulation, globally, I think consumers should pay an awful lot more attention to issues around artificial intelligence, content moderation, Big Technology being perhaps too big. Those are larger and important issues than net neutrality," he said.
Who really benefits from net neutrality?
Big Tech companies in Silicon Valley are the real beneficiaries of net neutrality, Entner argues.
He says that while consumers are being told that net neutrality is in their benefit, it's really for the benefit of the largest companies in the world like Google and Facebook.
Levy agreed and added that companies like Google are potentially at risk in a less-neutral future because "an open-standards-driven internet encourages the kind of broad-based activity that drives billions of people to use its services and powers its massive advertising machine."
He says that Google's primary responsibility is to its stakeholders and specifically prioritizes maximizing returns on their behalf.
He added that whatever the outcome is, Google will adapt and do what it takes to please stakeholders.
Is net neutrality a political issue?
At the crux of this all, however, is that net neutrality is a political topic and one that is very cyclical, or a topic that occurs in cycles.
Levy noted that internet policy is political policy and that we would be "naive to believe it isn't anything but."
"Indeed, political parties on all sides of the ideological spectrum are waking up to the possibilities inherent in using political power to shift telecommunications policy in a direction that aligns with their respective world view," he said.
What should I be paying attention to now with net neutrality?
Because the current executive order is only a call for the restoration of net neutrality it's only a step towards shifting internet policy and is only a start.
"Executive orders are not laws, and if this particular one is to result in any lasting change, the FCC will need to implement new regulations that enshrine net neutrality and separate it from the whims of whatever administration happens to be in power," Levy said.
However, Biden still has to appoint a fifth FCC commissioner, one who would likely support net neutrality and is in alignment with breaking the current 2-2 ideological deadlock.
"Even if Biden succeeds in getting his fifth commissioner appointed, there's still a long and winding road ahead to change the definition back and update the framework to prevent such political meddling in the future," Levy explained. "So don't expect netneutrality to magically return anytime soon."
Shruti Shekar is Android Central's managing editor. She was born in India, brought up in Singapore, but now lives in Toronto and couldn't be happier. She started her journalism career as a political reporter in Ottawa, Canada's capital, and then made her foray into tech journalism at MobileSyrup and most recently at Yahoo Finance Canada. When work isn't on her mind, she loves working out, reading thrillers, watching the Raptors, and planning what she's going to eat the next day.
Net Neutrality would be even more of a non-issue if there was actual competition in ISPs. In actual case, I have two choice which are predicated on the location of my house: I can get DSL through a company that takes two months to move it from one address to another(!) or I can get a single cable company which I don't get to choose. The cable companies, by (legitimate?) virtue of laying the infra-structure they use, have fiefdoms which means I only get the company that services my area. I don't actually mind in this case because I like what the company is offering, but I'd like to have the choice.
With a choice, if I didn't like how a company was throttling, I could simply choose a competitor which didn't (or didn't in a way that affects me).
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