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Is This the End of the Democratic Internet?

By: Jacob Fisher

Art by Jacob Fisher.


Trump’s Federal Communication Commission (FCC) just got rid of net neutrality. The Internet will no longer be a democracy. What does this mean, and why should you care? To answer this question, I interviewed Jeremy Gillula, a senior staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the leading nonprofit organization that defends civil liberties in the digital age also the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for the Internet. According to Gillula, net neutrality guarantees “no blocking, no throttling, no paid prioritization. So, no fast lanes, no blocking lawful content, and you can’t charge money to speed up or slow things down.” The end of net neutrality means the end of digital democracy: The end of the ability to access a free and open internet.  



Two years ago the FCC reclassified Internet Service Providers (ISPs) as common service providers under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, meaning that ISPs are regulated by the FCC. This means that ISPs are considered utilities, just like water, gas and electricity. Under Title II, ISPs are mandated by the government to give everyone the same service without discrimination. But now, the Trump administration wants to roll back net neutrality, thereby putting the freedom of the Internet in the hands of the ISPs. Ajit V. Pai, chairman of the FCC and former Verizon lawyer, is leading the charge to get rid of net neutrality. Pai is operating in favor of the ISPs who want net neutrality to end so that they can make more money.



Without net neutrality, ISPs can control what you see by restricting access to certain sites, or charging for access to others. For example, ISPs can drastically throttle or block your connection to Youtube or Netflix unless you pay a monthly premium. They can block access to news sites that they don’t like. Without net neutrality, ISPs are not required to provide complete access to everything on the Internet. According to Gillula, “If we rollback the rules it will stifle innovation in terms of what companies can do on the Internet… Without net neutrality it’s entirely possible that Internet providers could start treating…apps differently depending on their whim. They may start charging money… It will basically be that the Internet providers are the ones that get to decide what the Internet looks like instead of the free market.” For example, I like to browse Reddit, and the ISPs might be like, “someone on Reddit is saying something that we don’t agree with, so we’re going to block Reddit.” If the ISPs can control what people see and don’t see, they can stop some websites from forming entirely. For example in 2005 when Youtube was founded, if net neutrality didn’t exist, the creators of Youtube might’ve had to get their site approved by every ISP, a task that may have been too large to justify. However, in reality all they needed to do was buy a domain and publish their site. A world without net neutrality is a world where people may be afraid to express their ideas or products, and a world where the ISPs can censor the media.



Without net neutrality, small startups and business will be impacted the hardest. If ISPs are not required to allow equal access to everything on the Internet, a small business that is attempting to draw customers will need to get their website whitelisted for each ISP.  ISPs may not allow users to access websites that are hosted by or will benefit their competitors. For example, if Comcast is making a lot of money from Google ad revenue, they may block access to Google’s competitors. According to Gillula, “The effect is really more pronounced on small businesses and innovators than it will be on users. From a user’s perspective you don’t really notice if some cool new service that you could have used never appears.”



There is a small chance that the fight to save net neutrality could make its way to Congress, and net neutrality could make its way into being a federal law, meaning that Trump’s FCC would be forced to keep net neutrality. If you support a democratic Internet, then you need to contact your elected officials saying that you support net neutrality, and want it to be written into law. Freedom of information is key to a functional democracy, and if that freedom is taken away or restricted, we will not be able to make informed decisions and will therefore fail as a democracy.

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