Written by Ian Choi | Illustration by Caterina Jacobelli
Internet is a relatively new service, and one that has seen astonishing growth. From its roots in the US military in the 1960s when it was called ARPANET to the 90s’ “early internet”, the Internet now serves just over 50% of all humans on Earth, allowing anyone to access information stored thousands of kilometres away at the click of a mouse. When lawmakers first beheld this beast, however, they had one question: how do we make sure that people who use the internet are properly protected? This is the central question behind the debate around Net Neutrality. It is a question that has perplexed lawmakers for years, and is also the question that we will be tackling in the next 2000 or so words.
Thankfully, that question is quite difficult to answer, or else this article would be very short indeed. At this debate’s core is the understanding that Internet is a public service, one that is essential for daily life: in this way, it has been grouped alongside water, electricity, gas, telephone, and sewage systems in its importance to society. While public services can be financed by the government, they can also be run by private, capitalist companies. However, these endeavors must then be regulated by a legislative commission to ensure that companies don’t exercise any their capitalist intent, and make it harder for members of society to access Internet’s breadth.
Here, it is important to make a distinction between Internet and ISPs. Internet is, as we know it, a series of interconnected networks (hence the name) that spans the globe. However, when you type www.moongate.cis.edu.hk to hide your Tetris game from the librarian, your computer doesn’t connect directly to Internet: instead, it connects to an ISP that controls the access. There used to be three methods to connect to the ISP: cable, which uses cable TV infrastructure; dial-up, which used telephone lines to dial a number (but not make calls at the same time); and DSL, which also uses telephone lines, but also allows you to use the telephone simultaneously. Nowadays, the large majority of internet access is through DSL and cable, with dial-up largely rendered obsolete.
We are going to start by looking at what the United States has done and is doing, but in recognition that we live half a world away from Washington, D.C., we are then going to examine what we as Hong Kongers can learn from their successes and mistakes, and how America’s situation differs from, or is similar to, our own.
Nowadays, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates ISPs. Throughout the early 2000s, the FCC continuously tried to regulate internet service providers, to ensure that they did not limit access by decreasing speeds or blocking online content from its users. One example would be in 2007, when Comcast, the largest ISP in the US, was found to have delayed BitTorrent uploads on their servers. In response, by 2010, the FCC had implemented a set of guidelines preventing ISPs from blocking access to internet services. However, this was criticised for being too “soft” of a combative approach. Things only got worse in 2014, a court ruled that the FCC did not have the right to regulate cable companies because they were not considered “common carriers”— people or companies who transports goods for the public. ISPs were, in fact, classified in the 1934 Telecommunications Act under Title I as generic “Information Services”, and consequently they were subject to very little regulation. The tables were turned, yet again, however, after intense lobbying from internet activists resulted in the reclassification of ISPs under Title II of the same Act as “Common Carriers”, which put them directly under the FCC’s oversight and finally allowed them to be regulated properly.
That brings us to today, where net neutrality has reached yet another historical turning point. In December of 2017, the 5 leaders of the FCC voted 3 to 2 to undo the reclassification of ISPs to Title II, just two years after the FCC imposed harsh regulations on ISPs in order to treat all internet traffic fairly. The vast majority of relevant net neutrality legislation (e.g. restraining ISPs from creating fast and slow lanes for internet traffic, prioritizing their own traffic, and blocking specific apps and services) is now gone, with only the requirement that ISPs must publicly disclose their actions. The FCC argued that doing so would “facilitate critical broadband investment and innovation by removing regulatory uncertainty”. Now, ISPs can wreak havoc on both consumers and internet companies alike: by giving companies the right to block traffic, ISPs can now legally charge Americans for ‘packages’: if you wanted to access Facebook, for example, you would need a “Social Media Package” to do that. It gets worse for internet companies: now, ISPs can effectively force a company such as Netflix to pay them if they want their content to be streamed at a watchable speed, thus creating a slow lane. If this didn’t create the desired outcome, they could also directly threaten the blocking or limitation of content to pressure the organization into doing so. In essence, the new regulations would be exploiting the inevitable fact that users being unable to access their website would cause the company to lose profit.
Now, in America, all hope is not lost. In the few months since the FCC repealed its own regulations, numerous courts have filed lawsuits that opposite the FCC’s decision. 75 mayors in the first week of March signed a letter asking the FCC to reconsider its decision on repealing Net Neutrality laws. In New York, Oregon, Illinois, and Massachusetts, multiple lawsuits were announced, all centered around suing the FCC for its issuing of “arbitrary and capricious rules”. In Washington, Governor Jay Inslee announced in January that the state would continue enforcing Net Neutrality regulations regardless of the FCC’s repeal. Finally, in the Senate, democrats put forth a Congressional Review Act, which would allow the senate to nullify the FCC’s orders, which presently still needs one more vote to pass. Unfortunately, the Review Act is most likely going to fail, given that after passing the Senate, it would still need to pass the House of Representatives, which is majority Republican and against regulating ISPs (and thus against Net Neutrality).
The issue of neutrality has its own proponents and opponents, who perceive the benefits of regulations very differently. We will be going through them and seeing what merits they do and don’t have.
People on this side believe net neutrality is a force for good. Firstly, it protects consumers by making sure they are being granted Internet speed they are paying for, and makes sure that people don’t need to pay above their monthly fee for a service that is necessary for modern 21st Century life. This makes sense—as a public utility, people should be able to get the same internet speed regardless of what they do.
Secondly, on a level of principle, net neutrality is essential to free speech. Since Internet is a platform for free discourse, it is a place where Antifa can exist right next to CNN, the Alt-Right, and liberal media and all be treated equally. If ISPs decided that they were now politically biased towards, say, Democrats, they could choose to block or heavily slow-down content from right-wing news sources to make their users focus only on liberal news. Those people writing on the right-wing news sites would be having their right to speak their opinions violated, and regardless of whether or not they are right, everyone’s opinions should be given an equal chance to be heard. After all, in a different world, your opinions could be the ones being silenced.
Thirdly, net neutrality encourages competition between internet companies like Netflix. By enabling internet companies to freely have access to Internet, smaller, better competitors would be able to rise to the heights of their corporate counterparts based purely on merit alone. That is how small internet services can grow to such a large size: after all, if you needed to pay a gargantuan sum of money to ISPs every month just to make sure people see your content, it would be a serious financial burden and render your site unprofitable and uncompetitive when compared to Facebook, which might be able to afford the money.
On the other hand, some argue that net neutrality gives too much power to the government. Because in a world with net neutrality, the government would need to install software and hardware in order to be able to monitor the actions of companies. This arguably gives way too much power to the government, which could maliciously access the content. I understand the concern, especially given the fact that democratic governments can turn tyrannical (like in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy), and giving too much power to any government, even a democratically elected one, may only make it easier for them to become dictatorial and oppressive.
Secondly, some argue that net neutrality improves competition between ISPs: by removing regulations on ISPs can and cannot do, this will allow them to develop better services: for instance, if AT&T offered free internet when you used Instagram, the consumers of their competitors would see the better services and change over to them. This in turn would encourage their competitors to improve their services (for instance, offering free internet when using Snapchat). This cycle of trying to beat out their competitors would drive innovation and development, improving the internet we use.
Thirdly, some also mention how net neutrality actually artificially hurts companies: because internet services have to be handled at the same speed, a youtube video has to be treated in the same way as a blog (which is a smaller file size than a blog), and that means that video streaming superficially hurts ISPs. Thus, allowing ISPs to charge more for loading larger files seems to be a reasonable thing to do.
Why should we care?
On the surface, it would seem that both sides have some very good points. However, within the arguments pitched by the opposition, there exist some very flaws. Firstly, the argument that we can’t give too much power to governments does have some value, but in any nation, a government must have some degree of control, and I think that in this case the government should have the ability to moderate the internet, since it is a public utility, which the government has an obligation to provide to the public properly. It is the same reason why governments also have control over our water supply: sure, they could use their power to poison their civilians, but they also use their power to make sure that companies don’t redirect their pipes and leave you without water.
Secondly, the argument that repealing Title II classification would increase competition actually would make sense… just not in the US, because ISPs have a monopoly over the market in the States. Nowadays, in the US, the large majority of people have 2 or 1 ISP options, and so even if someone was dissatisfied with their services, they wouldn’t be able to change. Thus companies don’t actually compete with each other, and wouldn’t even if these regulations were removed. Now, since most ISPs know that their users don’t really have another choice, in the absence of regulations they would be able to do whatever they liked to squeeze every penny out of their customers, and since they provide a service essential for modern life, people wouldn’t be able to resist them.
Finally, the argument that net neutrality hurts ISPs is a little shaky given that you’re paying for the speed at which an ISP downloads content to your computer, so regardless of if you watch a youtube video or load a blog, that information is still coming into your house at, say, 5 megabytes per second. This means that youtube videos, which are large files, simply take longer to load than a small website. So this doesn’t really hurt internet traffic.
The situation in Hong Kong regarding Net Neutrality is very concerning. At this point, Hong Kong does not uphold Net Neutrality, a point which it has in common with many other countries worldwide. The internet’s governing body in Hong Kong, OFCA, has looked into designing a neutrality-positive system, but currently the system operates without much regulatory oversight. Thankfully, ISPs in Hong Kong are more competitive than in the US: just from my home, my family have the options of PCCW, Hutchison and HKBN. In this case the free market has more of a role on ensuring that these options don’t act against users. Even in this case, though, I would be skeptical of the industry’s capacity to change, primarily because Internet is a necessity in the modern age. Even if people don’t like any of the options given to them, they still have to pick one given the importance of Internet in our daily lives. And in some outlying areas, people are forced into situations similar to the US, where they only are given one ISP to choose from. So in that sense, the industry still holds immense power over our choices in our own city.
In Hong Kong, this has resulted in the ability for ISPs to partner with internet companies to provide extra services: for instance, Three offers data plans that allow people to be able to use Whatsapp for free. By doing this, companies may be able to heavily influence Internet market, so other newer applications that don’t have as much funding can’t compete with Whatsapp, since Whatsapp could pay companies to give their customers free data use.
So, what can we do to make sure that Hong Kong does not fall to the same fate as the US? In some aspects, we already are there—there is very little regulation and companies can do anything they want. However, there is much we can do as responsible citizens. Understand what net neutrality is and the factors that affect it. Keep up with whatever regulations OFCA tries to do (and maybe even look into your own mobile or internet company), and understand the situation. If you’re feeling really brave, send OFCA a message telling them how important net neutrality regulations are to you. We may have it better than the USA, but it is no reason to be complacent.