The term ‘Net Neutrality’ has been all over the news recently, especially with the recent ruling by the FCC to get rid of the Obama-era regulations (Link). While the ruling has led to immediate resistance in the legal and political arenas, and the true effects of this ruling might not be felt by consumers for weeks, this is still a disturbing decision in the history of information legislation.
First, let’s talk about what net neutrality is. As the internet has grown from a limited-use commodity to the world’s largest information network, the role of government regulation has always been a question that’s loomed overhead. The Federal Communications Commission under President Obama decided to impose these regulations on broadband providers, ensuring that they would not be able to charge higher prices for access to certain services, which is a central necessity for an open Internet.
The repeal of these regulations shows that the FCC is willing to change the way that we interface with the Internet, and give free reign to the internet providers to put up paywalls for their content. Those in support of this ruling (primarily Republicans) state that the elimination of these regulations will allow providers to exist in a free market, but that opinion puts a lot of faith in providers ‘doing the right thing’, instead of aiming to optimize their revenue, which would pass costs down to consumers. Outside of the economic considerations, the more dangerous consequences lie in the fact that this ruling gives power to the internet providers to control the content that their users can and can’t access. This sets a precedent for future access to information, and that brings us to the topic of data legislation.
We’re still early on in the data age, but there are parallels to the growth of the internet. As data collection grows through increased use of technology and analytics, questions will be asked about the appropriate rules and regulations for this data. Data ethics boards are already grasping with these questions, especially in the medical industry, but this has not reached the average consumer yet. If the data movement follows the same path of the internet, then this won’t happen for 5-10 years, but we need to be thinking about it now. If our access to content on the Internet is restricted, then what about the data that is collected on or by us? If we use devices to collect our data, or our data is collected in electronic medical records, will our access to these numbers be restricted? The entire way that we interface with technology is changing, and we need to monitor the effects of the net neutrality repeal so that we don’t make the same mistakes again.