Just over a decade ago, not many experts could have seen how vital the Internet would become in the everyday lives of human beings. From work to politics to social networking, the Internet has helped to globalize world economies and culture, and enhance the amount of information the average person has access to.
However, consumption is a central issue when it comes to the Internet. Many advocates argue that too many regions of the U.S. lack adequate access to the ’net. In addition, the web access that’s available can be of low quality due to market forces.
Key political and commerce issues
In the early 2000s, administrators at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) implemented rules that deregulated the Internet provider market. The FCC believed that market forces would create better, more efficient Internet service to a wider range of people.
But many companies chose to merge and consolidated their control of local markets. This meant that Internet providers could become “the only game in town” in many regions, which left customers no choice but to work with that provider.
In response, the FCC tried to correct some rules in the late 2000s. One centered on net neutrality, which says an Internet provider cannot censor content that a consumer desires because of competition issues between the provider and the content curator.
For example, if a consumer wanted to watch television programs through a particular website that did not pay for services through the Internet provider, the latter might intentionally put the brakes on download speed for all consumers who visited that site.
The issue becomes more serious when it relates to political opinion and discourse. Internet providers could potentially censor content that the provider believes is against its interests.
What is the Internet? No one knows
One Internet provider, Verizon, sued the FCC in federal court over net neutrality rules. On January 14th, 2014, the DC Court of Appeals found in favor of Verizon, and ruled that the FCC could not enforce net neutrality.
A key issue in the case was whether Internet providers are common carriers or information services. Under the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the Congress stated that Internet providers must maintain the flow of information from the web to all consumers.
However, Internet providers argued in federal courts that these rules place an onerous burden on them.
The central issue
At issue today is whether Internet service in the 2010s is a utility that requires a level of regulation, or it’s a luxury provided by a private firm to the consumer. If it’s a utility, government needs to regulate these companies to ensure they provide the service at fair market rates.
If Internet service is a luxury, then providers are offering a good to the consumer for a price, and the provider can direct certain specifications to consumer.
The Internet is not a luxury; it is like a highway
Activist and law professor Susan Crawford uses the analogy of a railroad or highway to discuss the Internet. Railroads and highways became economic centerpieces to the economy — so much so that businesses and consumers would suffer if they could not use these services.
The Internet has turned into something similar, according to Crawford. People need access to the Internet for job opportunities, news, and information, and to communicate with other people.
Constant access to the Internet is a professional necessity for many jobs in the 21st century. Children are expected to have access to the Internet to support their studies. Major financial and health decisions that families need to make, such as banking or health care, are conducted through the Internet.
As happened with highways, a market-oriented mentality, which would treat the Internet as a luxury one may buy (or not), cannot continue. This path would lead to further monopolization and pushing poorer people away from equitable access.
What can be done?
Monopolistic practices by Internet service providers and their ability to negate what a consumer can view on the web (because of the federal court ruling on net neutrality) are impeding telecommunication progress in the U.S., according to Crawford.
Her prescription includes setting a national standard for telecommunications in this country: access to high-speed, fiber optic cable Internet across the country. If that’s not possible, a more local approach is an option: allowing municipalities, regions, or counties to establish their own fiber optic networks to provide Internet service to their residents.
Whichever prescription one might follow, most activists and commentators firmly believe something must be done to make the Internet a common good.