The wall outlet that connects your Internet router to Comcast or Verizon is no different from the one that supples power to the living room lamp. That’s one way to look at this week’s federal court decision that wisely validated the position of the Federal Communications Commission itself: The Internet should be treated more like a utility than like an online superhighway where travelers who pay a toll get to go faster than others.
The ruling by a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reinforced the premise of so-called net neutrality — the idea that everyone should have equal access to the Internet, whether they’re sending and receiving basic HTML images or streaming full-length HD movies. Yes, it’s a numbingly dense principle, but one that should matter to anyone who spends time online.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said the 2-to-1 vote upholding the agency’s net neutrality rules “ensures the Internet remains a platform for unparalleled innovation, free expression, and economic growth.” That’s because the regulations — which the cable and telecommunications industries almost certainly will appeal to the US Supreme Court — keep service providers from speeding or slowing the flow of content or from blocking it altogether. While there has been little evidence that Internet service providers have been engaging in that kind of manipulation, preemptive safeguards are, within reason, wise.
Without net neutrality, Internet service quality could significantly vary from company to company, or site to site. For example, Netflix, which consumes huge swaths of bandwidth — up to one-third of all the data on the Internet, by some estimates — might have to pay millions of dollars to keep Piper Chapman’s image from buffering in the middle of “Orange Is the New Black.” Those costs would be passed on to subscribers. The ruling also recognizes that consumers have little control over download speeds, other than to buy service with faster bit rates. And it benefits entrepreneurs and startup websites that would operate at a disadvantage if they were saddled with sluggish upload, download, and streaming times.
Critics of the court decision say such fears are overstated. They worry that regulating Internet providers like a gas or electric utility will take away their incentive to invest in improved technology. Matthew M. Polka, chief executive of the American Cable Association, said the government is treating its members’ services “as though they are ‘dumb’ pipes provided by monopoly telephone companies.”
But there’s a case to be made for ensuring that providers can’t give preferential treatment to online powerhouses like Google’s YouTube — it may well make competition and innovation more likely. Maintaining net neutrality keeps the Internet’s lanes of communication accessible to all, from individual consumers to corporate giants.