These days, it seems that net neutrality is in its death spiral. Polls indicate that support for the measure is only at 52% for all voters (down from 60% in June), and unlike most political issues, 55% of Democrats and 53% of Republicans support the regulations. This is mostly because net neutrality pros and cons are poorly understood among most voters. While the benefits of net neutrality are clear (no ‘Internet fast lanes’) there are consumer advantages to repealing net neutrality.
These benefits are mostly reflected in zero-rating. This practice, which involves companies allowing consumers to pay a fee to speed up or get an unlimited amount of data, can in theory be beneficial to the consumer. The internet example that has been floating around about Portugal net neutrality simply allows people to pay more for better access, although not necessarily faster. For example, if you want to use more Netflix on your mobile data, you can pay to have that data treated differently (or even made unlimited) on your mobile plan. In terms of net neutrality pros and cons, that’s a pretty big win-win for consumers and ISPs. However, consumer advocates believe it’s incredibly unlikely that ISPs will stick to those guidelines, as a promise is nothing but that.
This is why many feel that deregulation of the internet ignores a key fact. Access to the internet is not a consumer choice, it’s a right. As Caldera Labs founder Christie Chirinos notes,
A true net neutrality advocate sees the internet as a colossal equalizing force. It is a never-ending library and a publishing house of low barrier to entry. Net neutrality advocates do not see the internet like much of the world sees it – a tool for consumption of games, social media, etc
In other words, the internet is an information library that primarily benefits those who have less power, both financially and politically. It isn’t just a place to binge watch TV and YouTube videos, or check updates on social media. For many, it’s actually a place to learn stuff. This is why the internet is the great equalizer, much more than a modern day college education.
There are currently over 6,000 MOOCs (massive open online courses) from 600+ universities around the world. That’s not to mention sites like Coursea and Udemy, which offer highly affordable courses for the fraction of a college class. Beyond that even, there are thousands and thousands of tutorials on YouTube where you can learn everything from WordPress development to fixing your kitchen sink. That isn’t to say the internet is a replacement for a formal education. But with the rising costs of college tuition, college really isn’t an option for everyone. But up until now, the internet has done its best to solve this discrepancy between the need for an education and the way to get it.
That’s why looking at the function of the internet as purely capitalistic and consumerist misses the point. The internet provides information — and shifts class power dynamics — in the way that socialists of other eras could only dream of. Information is power, and the internet provides this in spades.
This is exactly why the debate between net neutrality pros and cons will never end. This debates mirrors class struggles, and as we know, both Democrats and Republicans are not immune to these notions. It’s the reason we’ve been having this debate since before the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act in 2012. In effect, this question will never lie.
The question we should be asking ourselves is this: How free and open do we really want the internet be? For most of us, only as much as we believe all members of society should have equal access to opportunity. Or at the very least, the illusion of it.