Levi Teitel: The need for net neutrality

Saturday, December 2, 2017 - 9:57pm

The internet ruined my life. 

OK, maybe that was a bit of an overstatement. I’ll issue an amendment: The internet has changed my life for better and for worse.

Let’s start with the bad: the countless hours spent on that vapid website known as Facebook, the constant perusal of online articles to fulfill my insatiable appetite for political news and the way I begin and end each day by gluing my eyeballs to my cracked iPhone screen as I lie in bed scrolling through my Twitter and Instagram feeds. Totally healthy, right?

But in all honesty, the internet has also been beneficial for me. I would never be able to learn about obscure celebrities without the help of Wikipedia. Google Drive has made writing papers (and for that matter, writing The Michigan Daily columns) much easier. However, I worry that the internet’s positive effect on my upbringing will become upended by recent reports that the Federal Communications Commission will roll back Obama-era regulations on net neutrality, which may portend dire consequences on how we live and breathe the internet.

Net neutrality is somewhat of a nebulous concept, so let me lay it all out. Net neutrality is founded on the belief that the internet is best served when consumers are empowered in the telecommunications marketplace. Under this premise, logic follows that the internet must remain an open forum and treat all content equally.

If net neutrality goes away, internet service providers have the incentive to inaugurate a hierarchical system for web traffic — an idea completely unprecedented in this country. Those against net neutrality argue these rules stifle a free market and are a federal regulatory overreach.

While ISPs previously declared they would abide by the principles of net neutrality irrespective of governmental policy shifts, Comcast appears to have backed away from this promise. The company hinted it won’t offer “anti-competitive paid prioritization,” but this statement raises more questions than it answers. Comcast asserts it “will not block, throttle, or discriminate against lawful content,” despite opening avenues for some types of paid prioritization. Let’s break this down.

Blocking certain content is the most controversial, but ISPs have done so in the past. As Tim Wu notes, “There is a long history of anticompetitive throttling and blocking — often concealed — that the F.C.C. has had to stop to preserve the health of the internet economy.” Even as crazy as this idea sounds, this approach is still plausible.

Throttling, as the practice is dubbed, grants ISPs the ability to discriminate against some forms of web traffic, meaning they have the power to limit consumer bandwidth for certain sites. Throttling is completely arbitrary. While Comcast says throttling is not up for adoption, other ISPs may throttle sites in order to get websites to pay more for faster loading speeds.

ISPs, in this situation, would target web content providers such as Amazon and Netflix. The costs of this pressure may ultimately fall on those who pay for these services. Netflix, for example, accounted for 35.2 percent of web traffic in March of last year. Because media like video and music require so much data, sites like Amazon and Netflix would likely be the first to see changes — thus affecting consumers who already pay higher prices for slower internet access compared to the rest of the world.

How else would consumers pay higher prices? One country that has already done away with net neutrality is Portugal. Portuguese ISPs offer a tiered internet system requiring consumers to buy separate packages for social media, music, video, messaging and video calls. In turn, content providers are impelled to cut deals with ISPs for better bandwidth.

This situation is troubling for the following reason: ISPs and content providers often fall under the same corporate umbrella. If a company can be an ISP and content provider that also chooses to make rules to hurt other content providers, we have a real antitrust problem.

Take, for example, HBO GO. As the merger between AT&T and Time Warner looms, the former, a telecommunications provider, and the latter, a content provider, HBO would fall under the aegis of AT&T. Since AT&T provides internet access through its U-verse service, AT&T could essentially put HBO GO on the fast lane while competitors, such as Netflix, would load much more slowly.

Telecommunications companies are banking on the idea that the FCC will operate in their favor. The new regulatory climate comes at a concerning time; mergers and acquisitions are the new normal in the information economy.

At our own institution, University of Michigan faculty are weighing the pros and cons of the net neutrality argument. Personally, as a communication studies major, I worry about these drastic shifts taking place. Class projects require me to spend extensive amounts of time on YouTube and social media. If net neutrality goes awash, students already having to pay thousands of dollars for tuition would not be able to reap the same educational benefits as they would under a free internet.

The business ethos of ISPs is reminiscent of one of today’s most silver-tongued rappers, Cardi B: “Don't you come around my way, you can't hang around my block / And I just checked my accounts, turns out, I’m rich, I’m rich, I’m rich / I put my hand above my hip, I bet you dip, he dip, she dip,” she exclaims in the summer hit “Bodak Yellow.” Just as Cardi wishes to command the masses infatuated with her ostentatious persona, telecommunication firms similarly attempt to keep their customers under the false pretense that their business acumen will be of benefit to all. Not so accurate.

As the former FCC chief and proponent of net neutrality, Tom Wheeler wrote, “A fair and open internet is the backbone of the digital economy.” This could not ring truer for college students hoping to get a career in the new information economy or even just trying to live a normal life. We have become so dependent on computers and cell phones that a reverse in net neutrality would alter the way we use internet as we know it.

Levi Teitel can be reached at lateitel@umich.edu.