Is the Web a Natural Resource?

This piece originally appeared in Technology Insider Group.

Monday June 11th, 2018 marked the end of the rules imposed by the Obama Administration known as Net Neutrality. At its core, Net Neutrality sought to negate the powers of broadband companies and other internet service providers (ISP’s) to favor any particular website or content distributor over any other in terms of speed and ability of connection. For example, Comcast cannot increase streaming and/or download speeds of NBC programming for its users, simply because it owns NBC and wants it to be the quickest content available. Similarly, AT&T is not allowed to stream YouTube faster than SlingTV, simply because YouTube agreed to help incentivize AT&T thru lucrative financial offerings. Even more broadly speaking, ISP’s like Verizon are not allowed to block access to any legally abiding website or service online simply because their customers haven’t signed up for the package that offers unlimited surfing of the sites and apps.

The end of Net Neutrality marks a new era for ISP’s to construct new products that aren’t constrained to open access to the web. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai cites his reasoning for proposing the change as an opportunity for ISP’s to attract more investment due to less regulations. Similarly, Pai presents a protectionist view, which argues that Net Neutrality limits rural users from accessing the web at affordable enough rates. Claiming many users do not require access to the entire web, the industry has an opportunity to gain new customers while offering more narrow pathways to information.

As someone who still remembers asking my parents if we could get a 36.6k modem to sign-up for America Online, it’s disappointing to know that a whole new generation of internet users are entering a space deliberately limited based on how much they (or alternately, content providers) are willing to pay. In the old days, the amount of money you were willing to spend to connect to the web affected things like how fast your computer or overall connection was, not what you were able to access. Similarly, the notion of ‘fast-lanes’ for major content distributors willing to pay extra fees is a direct attack on the founding principles of the open web, bringing it back to the cable and satellite’s days of old.  As major mergers between service and content providers continue to receive approval, this reality seems all the more likely.

For the millions of digital natives who have grown up with the web, our connection feels more like a natural resource than a product. I understand that large companies are ultimately responsible for its delivery, but at the end of the day much of its content is people driven, and thus part of the natural landscape. If the internet were seen as a utility like water, the end of Net Neutrality would be like the water company having the ability to determine how much water you use for what. The starting package would cover drinking water and daily dishes, but if you wanted to add laundry or landscaping, you would need to upgrade. However, the fertilizer companies recently reached a partnership with the water company, so through September you can receive 3 months of water for your yard and garden for 50% off!

Sounds silly right? If this topic is of interest to you, the Senate recently passed a bill to restore the rules of Net Neutrality and I would encourage constituents to reach out to their respective Representatives of the House and ask that they do the same.