Some internet providers deliberately slow down connectivity to popular video streaming sites such as YouTube and Netflix, and then charge more for an “upgraded” package, which includes a faster connection to the video websites. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Tom Wheeler announced his embrace of new proposed regulations that would prevent this kind of bandwidth manipulation and promote net neutrality, meaning that providers and governments should treat all Internet data equally, and not charge more based on the user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication.
The idea of net neutrality ties into the almost-utopian ideals of the internet community, where some software is free to everyone, and where anyone can be anything. Price discrimination based on how one connects to the Internet, or what sites she/he choose to access is not consistent with the aims of the modern Internet community as a whole, specifically the “hacker ethic,” which promotes the free distribution of code and proprietary information to a degree.
Wheeler’s proposal to move broadband Internet service under the umbrella of Title II, the legislation that currently governs telephone service is merely the trailhead of a long and perilous legal journey for the FCC and huge internet providers like Comcast and Time Warner. The FCC’s previous attempts to foster net neutrality faltered on court because they had a difficult time explaining where they had the authority to regulate the internet. Columbia University law professor Tim Wu claims that the FCC has a much stronger case using Title II as justification. Title II treats the telephone network as a “common carrier,” meaning it is subject to similar public-protection rules as the railroads and pipelines, and it would subjugate Internet providers to “serve the public indiscriminately,” and prove their rates are “just and reasonable.”
On the other side of the coin, the FCC’s quest for net neutrality is an example of the government meddling in the affairs of a private business. The hacker ethic has since diverged from the overly idealistic view of free information for all, and some have taken a more entrepreneurial stance on what to do with the free code. The battle for net neutrality today, however, does not come down to ideals – it comes down to a legal battle between government intervention in private business versus regulating a new service that is deemed essential enough to the public.