Internet freedom at stake


By Shivam Sharma

While coffee chains around the country have been busy introducing new seasonal specials to commemorate winter, Washington appears to have its own flavor of the month: the net neutrality debate.

With President Obama and the Republican presidential candidate hopeful Ted Cruz weighing in on the issue this past week, net neutrality is quickly taking center-stage in the sphere of public debate.

So what is the net neutrality debate, and why does it matter?

Net neutrality, in theory, is the principle that every piece of information on the Internet should be as accessible as any other.

Your accessibility to the Internet is controlled by your Internet service provider such as Comcast or AT&T. Under net neutrality, you are able to visit any website on the public Internet and the data from each site is transferred to you at equal speeds — universal and free access to the Internet.

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The net neutrality debate arose when internet service providers (I.S.P.s) began asking video-streaming services, such as Netflix and Hulu, to pay an extra fee to have their data (movies and TV shows) transferred to consumers at the standard speeds or face the consequence of having their service restricted or slowed down.

Netflix claimed that this is in violation of the principles of net neutrality. Imposition of such fees by I.S.P.s on companies will lead to a “paid prioritization” of information on the Internet. People and companies that choose to pay extra will have their websites and services more readily accessible on the Internet than those who choose not to.

The issue is currently being deliberated by the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates interstate and international communications.

Their decision on net neutrality could seriously impact the way we interact with the Internet on a daily basis.

I believe net neutrality is essential to the existence of the Internet in its current form; repealing it could lead to unpredictable and potentially detrimental changes to the virtual landscape.

The Internet is a cornerstone for society in the 21st century. It has become a utility whose importance is at par with that of electricity, gas and water. Net neutrality ensures that those responsible for providing this utility doesn’t play a role in how we use it. But that is not the only reason net neutrality is important.

One of the foundational advantages of the Internet has been the fact that it provides a readily accessible platform for innovation, fueling progress. Net neutrality ensures a level playing field online so small companies and individuals with less capital can compete equally with larger corporations.

This has been absolutely crucial to the growth of the Internet.

In a scenario where net neutrality does not exist, a small online tech start-up with minimum resources would have to pay extra to make their services and information as readily accessible to people as those of their established competitors in the market. This puts their destiny in the hands of the financial leverage enjoyed by the I.S.P.s.

Net neutrality has played a vital role in the success and unbridled progress of companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Amazon and Buzzfeed, which rely heavily on Internet traffic. Naturally, these companies are now strong proponents of net neutrality.

Repealing net neutrality, then, would mean putting insurmountable obstacles in the way of the Facebook or Amazon of tomorrow.

An important claim that opponents of net neutrality make is the fact that companies that provide more data (i.e. take up more space on the network) should pay more.

However, the current situation doesn’t seem to be hurting anyone and the only people to benefit without net neutrality would be the telecom companies themselves.

Without net neutrality, access to Internet content would lie in the hands of a few major, private institutions. When combined with Comcast and Netflix’s competition over viewers, you don’t need to connect too many dots to come to a terrifying conclusion: Comcast’s push against net neutrality might have something to do with it wanting to gain an upper hand in the battle for viewership.

Thus, I for one, would be quite afraid if Comcast took control over how I accessed the Internet.

Considering the nature of the telecom industry, the consequences that repealing net neutrality could have are quite unpredictable. Imagine if the refrigerator you bought was dictated by your electric company. That idea is preposterous, and repealing net neutrality should be the same.

My take on the net neutrality debate, then: If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.

Shivam is a senior in Engineering. He can be reached at [email protected].