Congress considers net neutrality, digital divide laws
Wednesday, April 17, 2019
Your first time logging on to the internet may have been decades ago, but battles over its regulations rage on as the U.S. House just passed a huge hurdle by embracing net neutrality. The Senate is now considering the Save the Internet Act, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has declared it "dead on arrival," signaling that the battle for net neutrality is ongoing.
In 2017, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) repealed net neutrality rules established by the Open Internet Order of 2015.
The main issue here is equal treatment for all internet data.
Internet Service Providers (ISPs) — like Comcast and Verizon — can block and slow down websites as well as apply the controversial practice of "zero-rating." This occurs when ISP apps are not counted against the customer data caps, but other apps are counted. ISPs can favor their own products in this arrangement, offering severely limited content options.
According to the New York Times, "Supporters say the regulation would prevent companies from blocking or slowing the delivery of content like videos. Opponents say it would strap broadband providers like Verizon and Comcast with heavy-handed restrictions, and could lead to price controls."
On the state level, California is in the net neutrality lead. The state is preparing to take this issue on again, as new rules will be voted on. Other states have also passed net neutrality legislation, including Vermont, Hawaii, Montana, New Jersey, and New York.
What do net neutrality opponents fear most? Given that ISP consolidation has companies deciding what data will be widely accessible to average consumers, some would say they fear free speech itself.
ISPs can charge interconnection fees that deter less monetized entities from disseminating information online. This issue gets directly political, as less popular information can be swept aside by ISPs and dominant news outlets.
As one author explains: "...social media and streaming monopolies will be able, by cutting deals with the ISPs, to strangle their upstart competitors, keeping users locked into platforms that increasingly serve as little more than distribution networks for state-approved propaganda."
The First Amendment becomes especially important for those supporting minority viewpoints. Those favoring the — albeit abstract and incomplete — notion of an “informed democracy” have to agree that information diversity is key.
There are rumors that President Trump may veto net neutrality if passed in the Senate.
The overarching issue here is how to understand the internet’s function. Is it a free and open public utility, as net neutrality advocates contend, or is it a vessel for profit as private telecommunications companies favor certain data streams and websites?
Keep in mind here what choices you already have when you log on and search news each day. Since net neutrality has been an ongoing debate, we have yet to experience a fully free and open Internet.
The digital divide remains another issue.
With only half the U.S. population accessing speedy broadband due to income status or rural living, the U.S. Senate has just passed the Digital Equity Act of 2019. This provides $250 million for state-level grant programs to expand broadband access.
One of the key motivations here is the increase of internet usage in K-12 school curricula. It’s hard to do homework without the internet these days, and grant programs can help address this obstacle.
Net neutrality that overcomes the digital divide is one vision of our online future. The other vision may involve less access to fewer diverse information sources.
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