A Grain Of Saul: We Don't Want To 'Choose Our Plan'

The internet is not broken, so let's not try and fix it.

A Grain of Saul is a weekly column that digs into some of the biggest issues we face as a nation and as an international community in search of reliable data, realistic solutions, and — most importantly — hope.  

Advocates of a "free market" Internet have a simple pitch for those who support net neutrality: trust the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and rest easy because you'll get to "choose your plan" in the aftermath of the Dec. 14  FCC vote that repealed net neutrality.  

What they seem to misunderstand is that "choosing your plan" is exactly what advocates of net neutrality don't want. We don't want to choose our plan. We want the internet we pay for to flow to our homes without priority or preference — the same way our water does.

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It's unclear if treating the internet as a public utility would actually be a good thing, and the debate over what qualifies as a public utility can be left to the experts who determine how those nuances appear in public law. But what consumers are really asking for, first and foremost, is simple: leave things as they are. The internet is not broken — in fact, it's working quite well for every consumer I know. I'm a 26-year-old millennial who spent my entire life in the internet age and I've never once — not a single time — heard a friend, colleague, classmate, or family member complain about the internet being restricted or over-regulated.

The only people who are telling me that the "broken," "over-regulated" internet needs to be fixed are the politicians who receive money from the ISPs, the ISPs themselves (like Verizon, AT&T and Comcast), and the three Republicans on the Federal Communications Commission board (including FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a former Verizon attorney).

What the net neutrality regulations did was simple: they stopped broadband providers from charging for higher quality internet, specific content, or censoring the versions of the internet they offered. That means if you're using Verizon's internet, you can still go to The Washington Post and read all about how Verizon may have screwed you over. It means Verizon's internet looks the same as Comcast's (which matters a great deal if you're one of the 51 percent of Americans who only has one ISP to choose from). In markets where more than one ISP existed, the regulations fostered some competition over speed, price, and the quality of customer service, but it didn't allow ISPs to differentiate themselves by where you could go when you were on the internet. The internet looked the same for everyone, no matter who was providing it and no matter where you were.

Those net neutrality ideas were embedded in the internet and respected by ISPs long before 2015, when former President Barack Obama made them official (despite what the people fighting net neutrality might tell you). 

"In the early years of the internet, ISPs didn't have the technical capacity to discriminate traffic online," Tim Berners-Lee, one of the inventors of the World Wide Web, wrote on Medium. "Their computers were not fast enough and so net neutrality was a fact of life. Over time, as technology developed and the value of content flowing through the network increased, ISPs developed the ability and the incentives to discriminate internet traffic to get a cut of the spoils. We need rules to keep ISPs focused on what they do best: making access cheaper and faster."

Now, though, that could change. The threat of ISPs having more control over how your internet functions is alarming because of the way the internet has become an integral part of almost every American's life. The overwhelming majority of Americans, more than 80 percent, wanted to preserve net neutrality. That's because consumers know what a so-called "free market" internet would look like.

Consider your cable plan. When you want to get cable television, you get to "choose your plan." You can choose the standard cable package. You can have HBO and Showtime. You can get DirectTV, where you can watch every NFL game live each week. But guess what? When you choose your plan, you're also letting those providers jack up the price of certain channels  — and change the quality of service you get.

Pai speaking at a 2014 FCC workshop. Courtesy of the FCC.

The current internet situation is analogous to every consumer in America getting every channel you want when you turn your television on. We pay for it, and once we're on it we can go anywhere, look at anything, and we know the speed at which we're moving on the internet is not being intentionally altered. What ISPs very obviously want to do is move to a model that more resembles cable television. They want to be able to make some websites — think Netflix or Hulu — the premium HBO and Showtime channels. Then they can offer packages that include those websites, or threaten to speed up and slow down certain websites, and then charge the websites themselves to be included in internet plans.

What happens next is anyone's guess. Maybe the Netflixes and Facebooks of the world will cover the cost for consumers. Maybe those websites will push the cost to consumers and start charging more to use their websites. Maybe — in a situation where an ISP is also a cable company with competing shows — websites like Netflix will disappear from their internet for good.

That unknown is exactly what has net neutrality advocates in such a fit, and it's tough to blame them. FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, in her dissenting opinion against the vote to end net neutrality, offered some hope: "This agency does not have the final word," she said. "Thank goodness."

The best way to stop this madness is to pressure Congress to legislate net neutrality with new laws. Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers are planning to submit legislation to protect net neutrality, and a dozen states have already sued the FCC. So you can call your representatives and tell them to join the fight.

And if you're still undecided, consider this: the founders of the internet are ringing the alarm bells about this decision. If you're like me, then you don't see anything wrong with how the internet functions. If that's the case, if you feel the internet is a free and open place, the next thing you should be asking yourself is simple: why do some people so desperately want to "fix" it?

You can follow Isaac Saul on Twitter at @Ike_Saul

Cover photo: Shutterstock / Mark Van Scyoc

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