Your streaming is at stake: Why net neutrality matters


(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Gov. Jerry Brown of California signed a bill after the FCC repealed net neutrality rules in 2017. The move by the FCC means that providers like Verizon can now charge consumers differently for services and thus limit the access users have to the information that can be consumed.

Priyanshi Katare, Reporter

Ahead of the November midterm elections, Daily reporters are speaking to voters about issues they’ll take to the polls. In this article, students and professors take on the complexity of net neutrality.

The free internet has enabled U.S. residents to roam the web free from selective pricing for a better part of the last decade. But now that’s at stake.

At the center of today’s cultural, social and economic revolution lies the neutral internet. For the past 13 years, it has assumed the role of a public good under net neutrality rules, which has prevented most private organizations from capitalizing off internet consumption.

But in 2017, the Federal Communications Commission repealed Obama-era rules that treated all web traffic equally, making the internet open to different treatment by internet service and content providers. However, Northwestern students and faculty largely agree that the internet should remain free from this possibility.

“The freedom of information represents the freedom of opportunities,” McCormick senior Akhil Shanishetti said. “It allows people from all backgrounds to succeed in life.”

Much of Washington, D.C. is split over the importance of these rules. School of Law Prof. James Speta said both sides think their positions are better for the “free flow of information.”

“The argument for the net neutrality rules is that the power of the (internet service providers) and the market is such that they can limit the flow of information,” he said. “The argument against net neutrality rules is that having government involved in the internet ecosystem and suppressing the power of the ISPs to invest in their networks harms the flow of information.”

According to Speta, governmental supervision over the actions of ISPs is essential. One “step in the right direction,” he added, was the adoption of 2015 net neutrality rules by the FCC.

The move by the FCC means providers like Verizon can now charge consumers differently for services and thus limit the access users have to the information that can be consumed. Hence, there is a greater risk of information-targeting and manipulation of opinions by organized groups and corporations, because of the increased opportunities they now have to filter out critical information by making it too expensive to access.

“This affects the way we do research and the way we get our information,” Weinberg sophomore Imani Bah said. “Larger corporations can restrict the information we view by making it more expensive.”

While many states have opposed this repeal, none have taken as drastic measures as California. Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill on September 30 that could potentially nullify the effect of the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality in the state. The measure could force companies to extend those protections to the entire nation, as altering provision for a single state could be difficult.

Within hours of the bill being signed, the Justice Department sued California for what it said was beyond the scope of the state. The central basis for the DOJ’s case is that federal laws take precedence over state laws and hence in essence, California’s bill is null and void.

The decision regarding this case is central to what the future of the internet looks like for the U.S. One thing that might factor into the decision are questions over the FCC’s authority, Speta said.

If California wins, it may enable other states to form their own laws regarding the internet and could make the internet accessible as it was prior to the FCC’s ruling. However, if the DOJ wins, then there is a possibility that in the future the access to content and information would become more narrow and expensive.

Speta said based on historical evidence, California’s chances of winning are slim to none.

“It’s relatively important to maintain a relatively free form of the internet,” Speta said. “On the whole the incentive of the ISPs are to maintain a relatively neutral internet. That can be blunted in many ways, but on a whole even the private markets have an incentive to maintain a neutral internet.”

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