The Cyber Wild West

Jimmy Reese, Editor-In-Chief

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Net neutrality. It’s a concept that most people don’t understand or even know about but affects us all every day. Net neutrality states that ISP’s ( internet service providers) such as Time Warner and Comcast have to provide equal access to all content and applications, despite the source, and they cannot block or favor any application or content over another. What this means is that Comcast can’t block Twitter and give Facebook a better connection, allowing you to access Facebook easier and also giving it more traffic because you can’t access Twitter. This would be illegal because Comcast is not allowed to block access to Twitter, and it is showing strong favor towards Facebook by speeding up its connection. Whether or not this rule is needed is what the debate in Washington is currently about.

November 2013, Tom Wheeler is appointed to the head of the Federal Communications Commission ( FCC). This brought up questions about whether President Obama would keep his campaign promises to protect net neutrality. Why does this bring up questions? The reason is because Tom Wheeler is the former President of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA) and CEO of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA) which are all lobbying groups for the ISP’s, and they are against net neutrality. They are against net neutrality because they want to essentially tax internet companies, and the companies that pay will get special treatment. The only problem with the whole net neutrality debate is that it hasn’t evolved much in over a decade.

What the debate should really be about is how to make the internet as neutral as possible. The internet isn’t neutral anymore, and it hasn’t been for years. Most of the internet traffic is generated by 30 different companies which include Netflix, Google, and Facebook. The number of companies generating internet traffic is on the decline. In 2009 there were 150 companies generating half of the internet traffic, and now we’re already down to 30. For such a small number of companies to generate so much traffic, they have direct plug-ins into ISP servers. They are called Content Delivery Networks, or CDN’s. CDN’s offer faster internet service than what is commercially available to the average consumer. So when answering the question, is the internet neutral? The answer is an emphatic no, and framing the debate as such is just wrong.

On the other end of this, you have people advocating the outlaw of this and various other practices to make the internet neutral again, but this too comes with its own fair share of problems. For instance, without these direct links to ISP servers, services such as Youtube and Netflix wouldn’t be able to operate at the capacity needed to handle all of the internet traffic they receive. The real problem lies with the ISP’s and the total lack of competition between them.

Most people realize that in their area they only have one or two cable companies competing against each other. This is because there aren’t that many cable companies anymore, and the ones that are still around have made arrangements of who can control what area. Most of them have merged into giant super corporations. The five largest being Comcast, Time Warner, Cox Communications, Charter communications, and Verizon FiOS. After these companies you just have a list of smaller companies operating in just a few states such as Armstrong and Google Fibre. To make things worse, Comcast and Time Warner are trying to merge and then would control a majority of the U.S. internet service area. This would essentially be creating a monopoly.

The problem becomes even more complicated when you throw mobile internet access from things like phones into the mix. Currently, mobile carriers’ internet access isn’t under the same regulation as other internet access companies such as Comcast and Time Warner. There has been great debate on whether or not to give wireless companies the same standing and regulation, and the debate gets more heated as mobile carriers break net neutrality rules. Several carriers have started offering a new “zero rating” wireless plan. These new data plans allow users to browse certain websites and apps without it being held against their monthly data usage. This breaks net neutrality because the mobile carriers are showing favoritism towards certain websites and apps such as facebook.

To really solve the problem of open internet, you need to increase competition. Increasing competition between internet companies, both wired and wireless, would cause them to innovate and give the best possible service to keep their profit margins up and stay in business. There are a few ways this could be done. The easiest and least controversial would be to start trust busting, Theodore Roosevelt style. If you break up companies such as Time Warner and Comcast, that would dramatically increase competition amongst themselves because they all want as much money as possible. Another good, but significantly more controversial wa, is to subsidise the internet. This would mean an internet service run by the government. That sentence strikes fear into the hearts of many but it isn’t as scary as it sounds. A public option would be owned by the people and would be regulated by the people, and you would have to never worry about it merging with other companies.

The internet is the modern day wild west. Setting effective regulation that won’t stifle growth is a complete nightmare, and that is why it is important for everyone to be informed and vocal on the topic.

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