Essay: Net Neutrality

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  • Published: 14 September 2021*
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United States’ FCC’s Sequence of View on Net Neutrality

Network neutrality, also known as net neutrality, is the concept that Internet service or network providers, like Verizon and Comcast, treat all content and applications on the Internet equally. This means providers should not prioritize certain data and slide them into “fast lanes”, or discriminate against some material (Finley, 2018). Fundamentally, net neutrality requires providers to allow users undifferentiated and equal access to any online materials of their choice. An example of discriminatory acts could be the providers intentionally slowing down Netflix, a media-service platform, just to influence the users to switch to another video-streaming service. Offering fast lanes could be providers like AT&T (owner of Time Warner) or Comcast (over of NBC Universal) being biased towards their own content. Supporters of net neutrality believe that not having net neutrality could stifle innovation in the Internet. Should broadband providers offer priority to certain services and platforms, the growth of new companies and technologies could be hindered. If internet providers blocked video streaming in the mid 2000s, Netflix or YouTube might not have grown to what they are today. Net neutrality also encourages economic growth and free speech of the Internet; the power of those large network providers enables them to manipulate the Internet and limit online speech to companies who can afford to pay for priority treatment.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), founded in 1934, is an independent agency of the United States government established by statute to regulate all interstate communications, like wire, radio, television, satellite and cable, and international communications involving the United States. In 2005, under George W. Bush presidency, the FCC attempted to create an even playing field on the Internet establish some anti-discrimination Internet laws in a policy statement. Under the new laws, service providers were restricted from limiting legal content or hindering customers’ connection of their devices to their internet. In 2008, under the same policy, the FCC prohibited Comcast from throttling and discrimination against the file-sharing software BitTorrent traffic, as it also provides legal uses, other than digital piracy. However, after being sued by Comcast, the FCC was deemed overstepped the bounds of its authority. Subsequently, under Obama’s presidential term in 2010, the FCC, aiming to withstand legal perusal, passed Open Internet Order. Regardless, the FCC was still successfully sued by Verizon in 2014, whereby the court, once again decided that the agency did not have enough jurisdictions, under Title II of the Communications Act to impose regulations, as Verizon was an “information service” not a “telecommunication service”. Basically, the Internet was classified as a utility. The FCC decided to extend authority to over broadband providers as Title II carriers. In 2015, the FCC then releases its new, all-inclusive proposal, and again, was sued. However, this time, the court ruled these regulations as legal and net neutrality took effect.
When Trump was elected U.S. president, Ajit Pai took over as the new commissioner of the FCC in 2017. He announced a plan to revoke the 2015 net neutrality order, so as to update FCC Internet regulations to “match the reality of the modern marketplace” (Colocation America, 2017). Moreover, he proposed that a reclassification of broadband back to information services and less, or slackened, guidelines enacted by Title II would spark innovations and improve infrastructure from the providers. The repeal went through when the FCC voted in favour of lax regulations. With the new laws in place, customers would likely have to pay more with the new pricing schemes, such as bundled packages. To access social media platforms, they would have to pay additional to providers for a premium social media bundle.
It became the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)’s role to protect consumers, instead of the FCC. However, not only does FTC not have rulemaking authority, but also, unless the net neutrality violation breaches the fair-competition regulations, the FTC is powerless. In other words, offering “fast lanes” for companies who pay for this special treatment might not be flagged as a violation and the provider operates without regards for the net neutrality laws. On top of the reasons Ajit Pai backed the repeal with, it was speculated that the repeal might have gone through also because the large Internet providers paid Senators to vote in favour of the repeal.

Singapore’s Viewpoint on Net Neutrality

Since 2011, Singapore’s net neutrality position seems to have forged a compromise on both perspectives of the net neutrality discussion. The Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) formalised a whitepaper outlining its net neutrality policy regulates the Internet laws in Singapore. Although the statutory board understands the advantages of not having net neutrality (that is, promoting network innovation and optimising the economy), they acknowledge that the policy-making should safeguard consumers’ interests and that they should be rendered enough protection.
While the IMDA encourages net neutrality, its implementation in Singapore is partial. Its current policy consists of a three-pronged approach. Firstly, the IMDA aims to foster a competitive Internet access market through the Telecom Competition Code (TCC). The TCC deters abuse of market power and anti-competitive practices. The next prong emphasises on transparency of information to the consumers. Internet service providers in Singapore are required to disclose to customers their network management behaviours and usual broadband download speeds (Christopher & Lee Ong, 2018). Moreover, to facilitate consumers’ selection of a broadband package, the IMBA provided a comprehensive Residential Broadband guide. The last prong prohibits Internet service providers from “blocking legitimate Internet content” or executing plans that cause materials to be unreachable or unusable. However, there is no official meaning of what it means for content to be “unusable”, and these providers are not prohibited from manipulating Internet traffic speed, as long as they still conform to the IMDA’s Quality of Service and information transparency regulations (IMDA, 2011). In addition, local Internet service providers and network operators are not banned from offering tailored and customised plans that meet the IMDA fair competition protocols. This has allowed telephone companies to liaise with over-the-top providers like Spotify to provide customers with niche, peripheral services without taking a toll on the user experience. Hence, the stance on net neutrality that Singapore has taken is evidently less prohibitive than the United States’ position, before the repeal, who bans any paid biases.
As a result of Singapore’s establishment of net neutrality, local consumers can now exploit the game-changing technological advancements in the form of a vast variety of Internet access service packages. Local Internet service providers are given a certain degree of flexibility to innovate and distinguish their product offerings from that of their competitors. This sort of healthy competition has led to the emergence of value-adds on the market, services like cloud storage and online stores have benefitted consumers who can choose the providers that best meet their demands (IMDA, 2011).
Despite developments in the United States’ stance on net neutrality, Singapore’s take on this issue remains unchanged, that is, all materials on the Internet are to be treated equally by network providers, and consumers have the right to access the Internet on an impartial basis. The IMDA, which keeps close monitoring of international occurrences, released a statement on 15 December 2017 indicating no intentions to revise its current policy framework even after the net neutrality repeal in the United States. After the most recent decision made by the FCC, the United States’ approach to net neutrality has become more in line with that of Singapore’s. As such, the FCC’s repeal of the rule is expected to not have a notable impact on the practices of the local network providers. Nonetheless, some of these service providers may be encouraged to revamp their pricing strategies and charge higher for speedier connection to popular sites. Despite that, they would still have to comply with the TCC and be evaluative of the potential setbacks.

3.0 My Personal View on Net Neutrality

After careful evaluation, I have decided that I am in support of net neutrality and that it should be enforced. I’ll be explaining why in the following sections.
Firstly, net neutrality is a basic human right. It enables users to surf the Internet free and for open online communication. It denies Internet service providers the authority to discriminate against any sites or content and they are required to provide users with unrestricted networks. Net neutrality enables everyone the freedom of expression online as well. Without it, providers would be able to throttle the Internet into different lane speeds and block access to materials they do not want users to see – be it from rival companies or even political organisations. This is a serious breach of ethics as companies or political groups can pay the providers to show users content in favour of them and block any content that is not, creating a great opportunity for users to be manipulated and “brainwashed” into doing what the organisations want them to do. It could be as simple as to buy a product, or as major as elections. Just as telcos cannot determine who their customers can or cannot call, these service providers should not be given the right to decide what their customers are able to view on the Internet.
Net neutrality ensures a level playing field and lowers the barriers to entry. Consumers get to choose what services they want to access – this openness fosters competition. Internet service providers are like gatekeepers that stand between online content and users. Without net neutrality, they would exploit their position to gain the most profits. These providers would inevitably charge higher rates for higher bandwidth. While large companies have the resources to afford the fees of the higher priority lanes, small businesses would be left with slow loading times that deter customers. Smaller companies may not be able to compete with the other larger organisations and would be driven out of the industry, suppressing competition levels and ultimately, increasing consumer prices. Not only do companies suffer the brunt of the additional tolls, consumers would also be facing higher prices, as some of the financial burdens would be transferred from the companies paying for the fast lanes, to their customers.
In addition, an open Internet reveals the possibilities of innovation and expands the room for creativity and growth for all businesses. Net neutrality ensures that larger companies do not have another competitive edge over a tiny start up by being able to afford to pay Internet service providers to be in the fast lanes. If it were not for the level playing field that net neutrality brings, there would be less free flow of ideas, technological innovations would be stagnant. Consumers would not be able to enjoy what new and creative services small companies have to offer after they are being squeezed out by the larger conglomerates. Looking at things in retrospect, platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Netflix and Skype, which all began as start-ups, would not have existed today if they had to pay additional charges to Internet service providers for paid prioritisation back then.
In all, net neutrality brings about various benefits that we as consumers and businesses are so used to. It is a basic human right and encourages fair competition, which is crucial for small businesses and pro-consumer, and nurtures an open environment of opportunities to innovate.


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