Opinion guest column

SIPB: net neutrality matters

Don’t let the FCC dismantle it

This Thursday, on December 14, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will vote to dismantle net neutrality rules. Those rules require Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to serve all content equally, without favoring or blocking any specific websites or services.

Unless you are one of the ISPs, the end of net neutrality rules is bad news. If you use the internet at home, you may have to pay your ISP more for data-hungry services like YouTube or Dropbox to avoid deliberate slowdown. If you are an entrepreneur, you can expect to pay the ISPs a heavy toll to access your customers over the internet, as Netflix did in 2014 when Comcast throttled its traffic in favor of Comcast’s own streaming service.

Why do the ISPs seem to have such enormous powers? Unlike the early days of the internet, the big ISPs in the U.S. today like Time Warner (now Charter) or Verizon are oligopolies that have carved out regional markets where they do not compete with each other. In Cambridge, for example, Comcast is currently the only one serving residential cable internet.

Free market competition alone is unlikely to break up these regional monopolies. Building an ISP from scratch requires a huge upfront investment in physical infrastructure that takes years to recoup – certainly not the kind of startup that attracts venture capitalists. Considering how easy it is for ISPs to locally operate at a loss to crush competition, it is no surprise that the ISP market imposes a high barrier of entry. Even an internet giant like Google struggles to expand its Fiber coverage.

Because of this lack of competition, without net neutrality, big ISPs have a huge leverage over other internet companies that rely on them to access U.S. consumers. Larger companies can afford to pay ISPs a toll to do business on the internet, but many startups cannot. Without the “burden” of net neutrality, ISPs can make it impossible for newer, smaller businesses to compete, which will seriously stifle innovation.

It is easy to equate the ability of ISPs to control content with that of other internet companies like Twitter, as FCC Chairman Ajit Pai did in order to frame net neutrality as unfair regulation that burdens ISPs. While Twitter only has the power to control what people tweet, ISPs have the power to censor anything that the user may see. By requiring ISPs to treat all content equally, net neutrality is an important protection for the bedrock of a free and open internet.

Unfortunately, the FCC vote this week is expected to repeal net neutrality rules. But the fight is not yet over: activists are already preparing to fight the FCC decision in court.

The more permanent fix is for Congress to enshrine net neutrality in law. This is where you come in: you, as citizens of this great democracy, can provide powerful political will for your representatives to reject the lobbying of big telecoms and support net neutrality.

So call, tweet, and write to your representatives. Talk to your family and friends. Explain to them why net neutrality matters, and encourage them to take action, too. Together, we can make a great ruckus. Together, we shall fight to save the internet.

Lizhou Sha ’18 is a former chair of SIPB. Miguel Young de la Sota ’18 is the current chair of SIPB.