CTRL+ALT+DEL: The death of net neutrality and why you should care

It’s easy to take the internet for granted in today’s world. Our WiFi connections are essential to school, work, entertainment—the list goes on and on. There are so many aspects of our lives that are made easier by our ability to access whatever information we want online, assuming that we’re able to actually find that information. One of the universal expectations of the internet is that we have the ability to use it without having what we can or cannot access determined by someone else. We might have been able to take that for granted in the past, but we definitely can’t now. It all comes back to a little something called net neutrality.

Net neutrality is the idea that internet service providers (ISPs, or the AT&Ts, Comcasts, and Verizons of the world) should treat all online content and data the same. Essentially, this means that ISPs aren’t allowed to prioritize certain websites by manipulating connection speed or upping the price needed to access it. In 2010, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) enacted the first regulations enforcing net neutrality, which eventually led to the Open Internet Preservation Act of 2015. But on December 14th, 2017, the FCC repealed those very same net neutrality rules, once again giving ISPs the opportunity to control people’s internet access in order to increase their own profits.

This action has a whole boatload of potential consequences. For one, it allows ISPs to charge consumers more to access certain sites, and speed up or slow down connections based on which websites are paying them more. So any website that doesn’t cough up enough cash to the right company can fall victim to these slower speeds. YouTube, Facebook,Wikipedia, Craigslist—you name it, and it’s at risk. ISPs can manipulate these speeds to pick and choose which websites to promote or leave behind, basically giving them the freedom to manipulate us as well. Limiting the things we can see and do online allows these companies to control the information we receive, and in a way, our lives. We live in the USA, where even the government isn’t allowed to censor our internet. So what gives these companies the right to place limitations on what is available to us online? The internet makes our lives infinitely easier and more exciting, and no one should be able to alter that experience just to make a profit.

President Trump’s newly installed FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, argued that repealing these regulations will spur innovation,which is a fancy way of saying that it’ll benefit internet service providers and not the consumers themselves. This makes me more than a little angry, because even though ISPs will definitely be making more money, there’s no way that all of that is going to go towards innovation. Plus, these companies are doing just fine. The repeal of net neutrality isn’t going to do anything for us, other than taking away our choice when it comes to what we choose to do online.

Despite insistence from companies and supporters of the repeal that nothing will change, ISPs don’t exactly have the best track record when it comes to self-regulation. For example, there was an incident in 2012, following the implementation of the first net neutrality regulations, where AT&T only allowed customers who paid more to use an early version of FaceTime.

Whether it was an attempt to drive out the competition or to make an extra buck, AT&T clearly pursued this tactic even when it was illegal, and this is only one example of the countless other violations of net neutrality throughout the years. When asked in 2014 if Verizon would use its power to favor some sites over others in the absence of regulations, Helgi Walker, one of the company’s top attorneys, said, “I’m authorized to state from my client today that but for these rules we would be exploring those types of arrangements.” This statement doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

Moral of the story: without the laws and regulations that enforce net neutrality, there are no consequences for these actions, so there’s nothing stopping companies from continuing with unfair pricing at the cost of an even online playing field, as well as people’s internet freedoms. As soon as we open up our computers or phones, we expect that we have the right to access all the internet’s available information, but internet service providers sure haven’t lost any sleep over taking away those rights in the past. Assuming that history will repeat itself, it’s safe to say that there will be a lot of very, very, slow connections and loading screens in your near future (if that’s something you haven’t
already noticed).

Another thing to consider is that these changes don’t just affect us as active users of the internet—they also affect us as students. Almost all of our classes use Chromebooks, and personally, I can’t remember the last time I started an assignment without pulling out my computer or phone for research. It’s hard to hunt down information and sources for a paper or project if it takes an eternity for the website you need to load. These same problems could affect flipped classrooms on an even larger scale, since they rely on the internet to teach students. Online videos and lessons, which aren’t exactly a priority for internet providers, will move at a snail’s pace thanks to slower connection speeds.

We rely on the information the internet provides to learn and grow in school. If our ability to absorb that online information is hindered, then so is our ability to take what we learn and use it to form our opinions and views. The whole point of school is to educate us about the world, which is pretty tough to do when the best resource we have to learn about it is suddenly snatched away. Without net neutrality, we have a whole lot less information at our fingertips, and it’s our education that pays the price.

Now I know that being angry about slower connection speeds might seem a bit trivial coming from a teenager, but I stand by my argument. I’m not just upset over the possible decline of Netflix and Spotify quality (although that is a part of it, to be fair). I’m upset because the internet is the most important resource we have when it comes to pretty much everything. It’s how we connect with each other over long distances, how we know how to get to a friend’s house, and how we learn about things we’d never be able to understand otherwise. That’s why net neutrality is so important. Protecting the internet, a tool that is irreplaceable in today’s world, is vital to countless aspects of our lives. We can’t just let it slip through our fingers like this.

The good news is that the fight for net neutrality isn’t over. Yes, the FCC already voted to approve the repeal, but there are still ways to make a difference and move to restore the protection that net neutrality provides. Only a few days after the FCC vote last December, senators moved to block the ruling and keep net neutrality from becoming an immediate reality. Shortly afterwards, 21 state attorneys general filed a lawsuit on the basis that the repeal violates federal law and harms consumers. Illinois has since joined the lawsuit.

Other non-profit organizations, such as Mozilla and the Open Technology Institute, also filed similar lawsuits in the public interest. Additionally, some states (excluding Illinois) have passed bills that reinstate net neutrality rules for service providers with state contracts. And thanks to Massachusetts senator Ed Markey, the Senate is set to vote on a resolution to challenge the FCC’s ruling and reinstate internet protections. Although this vote is still a ways off, only one more vote is needed to send the resolution to the House. In the meantime, there are ways for you—yes, you—to get involved. You can start by contacting your senators and representatives and letting them know how you feel. When it comes to something as important as net neutrality, we all need to be ready to take action and fight for the internet we know and love.