Image: Thom on Unsplash
This is an important victory. On February 26, the American Federal Communications Commission voted to classify broadband as a utility, and ‘net neutrality’ was finally realised.
American Internet service is now regulated under Title II of the Communication Act – the same legislation that landline phone companies in the United States must abide by. The legislation is a set of rules which dictate that an ISP cannot block, slowdown, or speed up a website. The key is that a subtle separation is created between the data that travels on the internet, and the wires that make up the internet itself. While the ISPs own the wires, Title II dictates that they can’t ‘interfere’ with the data. Simply, American broadband companies like Comcast and Verizon must treat all data packets on the internet the same way.
If this legislation had not been passed, vast power over the internet could have been granted to the ISPs. The biggest proponents of net neutrality include Tumblr, Twitter and Netflix. They are examples of the internet as a level playing field: any small company can begin on the internet and become hugely successful based on the quality of their services alone. If paying an ISP gave your website an advantage, this dynamic of fairness and equal opportunity would have become broken. Furthermore, consumers could have had to pay extra for access to the likes of YouTube or Facebook. In the darkest visions, people imagined the worst effects of a private company being between you and the journalism of newspapers and the ideologies of political websites .The campaign for Net Neutrality therefore became passionately charged. There was the incredibly
popular segment on the topic by John Oliver, a letter of support signed by musicians like Neutral Milk Hotel and Death Cab for Cutie, and so many people voiced their support to Net Neutrality on the FCC’s website that their servers crashed. Victory has since been greatly celebrated: a pro-Net Neutrality group created a banner with a picture of Grumpy Cat on it, and “Comcast: Don’t Mess with the Internet” is written on the image in all-caps Impact font. Elated, they sourced a plane, attached the banner, and flew around the Comcast headquarters in Philadelphia.
Yet, we must make no mistake: Title II does not mean that the Internet’s future is completely and forever secured. This is legislation that was originally written for landline phone companies in the 1930s, making it easily attackable, and there are sure to be countless legal challenges against it.
It’s the 24th of February, and the FCC’s Net Neutrality vote is two days away. Hillary Clinton walks on to the stage for an interview at the female-focused technology conference Lead On. She sits opposite technology reporter Kara Swisher, and Clinton glistens with a distinctly electable charm. The former First Lady states that she supports Net Neutrality, but her tone seems lamenting. “They have to have a hook to hang it on and so they’re hanging it on Title II,” she explains. “It’s the only hook they’ve got. … If there were another hook, it would come out of a modern, twenty-first century telecoms technology act – and we don’t have that, and we’re not likely to get it.” On stage at the conference, Clinton embodies many things: there needs to be greater focus amongst politicians on internet-related policy, and the nature of the conference highlights how there needs to be more women in the technology industry.
Yet, Hillary Clinton’s appearance is also six days before she makes headlines in the New York Times as she had used her own private email account while being US Secretary of State. It isn’t quite clear what this means, or whether Clinton is in the wrong. The policies and practises concerning emails and transparency seem confusing and blurry. In the Uwe don’t have such strong debates about net neutrality.
Instead, protesters are combatting controversial filtering software and concerns of censorship. We are still working out how the internet can maintain its current form while also fitting into society and politics. Yes, the FCC vote is important, and the victory is monumental – but there will still be many more fights that will have to be won.