Net neutrality is the term used to describe the free internet and the principle that internet service providers should enable equal access to all internet content. In 2015, after much debate, the Federal Communications Commission reclassified broadband as a common carrier, which effectively preserved net neutrality. The ruling prevents ISPs from throttling certain internet content coming from specific websites. By regulating the internet, the government has preserved the openness of the internet.
The basic way the internet works is that data travels through cables that connect computer networks to servers that host websites. There are massive underwater cables that connect continents and data traveling through these cables is how you can view a website that is hosted on a server in Australia on your computer in the United States. When you type the URL of a website into your web browser, it sends a request to the server hosting the website and then that data gets sent back through cables to your computer. The cables don’t build or maintain themselves and also don’t extend into cities and towns. This is where internet service providers come into the picture. Many of the ISPs providing broadband internet service in the U.S. are cable companies, who had already laid down cable infrastructure to provide cable television to Americans. In return for providing the cable infrastructure, ISPs charge for the service to connect consumers to the internet through these cables.
Since ISPs control the cables where the internet content data is transmitted, they have the power to control and filter the data that gets transmitted through those cables. Net neutrality is the principle that all internet traffic is treated the same by ISPs. This means that an ISP like Comcast should not be able to block or bandwidth throttle certain websites. For example, lets say an ISP like Comcast had a business relationship with Nike. In support of Nike, Comcast could bandwidth throttle the websites of Nike’s competitors. So every time a consumer that uses Comcast internet service decides to visit Adidas.com to buy sneakers, the website loads at a snail’s pace compared to Nike’s website, which is running normally. If this can be done to a behemoth like Adidas, what chance do smaller businesses and start-ups have?
A less obvious way of violating net neutrality is a practice called zero-rating. Wireless service providers have offered consumers a “zero-rating” when they use certain applications on their smartphone. For example, T-Mobile has offered their wireless users a zero-rating when they use Spotify, Apple Music, and Pandora. This means that when they listen to music on Spotify, the data consumed using that application does not count against their monthly data cap. This is troubling as it clearly favors the use of certain applications over others. A competitor of one of those music streaming apps would have a huge uphill battle to gain market share when those customers are undoubtedly going to be encouraged to use those “zero-rating” apps so they can save valuable mobile data.
It may seem counterintuitive that government regulation can actually promote free markets, but that is exactly what is occurring with net neutrality rules. An open internet may be the biggest free market in the history of the world. By imposing net neutrality on internet and wireless service providers, it prevents them from favoring certain websites and content over others. The free access to all internet content should not be dictated by service providers.