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Thankfully, right now, the internet is free from such messages. Under net neutrality, Internet Service Providers are required to treat all websites equally, regardless of content, political leanings or ownership. Your ISP is the company you pay to access the web: in Canada, we have Bell and Rogers, for example.
Repealing net neutrality — which the Federal Communications Commission in the United States is proposing — means that ISPs will have the power to select which websites their consumers will experience high speeds to or even have access to. Hypothetically, without net neutrality laws, Bell could limit your access to websites it finds objectionable or unprofitable.
Canada is a world leader in this regard: the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has repeatedly affirmed their commitment to net neutrality, and we’ve even strengthened our net neutrality laws recently.
The content of the internet, as it stands now, is on an even playing field: anyone willing to pay for internet usage has public access to all the social media websites, online retailers and cat videos anyone could ever need. We can choose where we spend our time, what we read, what we watch and what we consume without paying extra for anything in particular.
But the means by which we access the internet — our ISPs — are could have a lot more power over consumer choice without legislation. ISPs are often oligopolies, a few gigantic companies who control the entire market by shouldering out any competition. Comcast has topped the list in the United States as the most hated company, but for many consumers, Comcast is the only option. Giving ISPs control over content access will only serve to consolidate their power more: if Bell is unhappy with a competitor, they can restrict access to their website.
It’s not just that repealing net neutrality is anti-consumer — it’s also antithetical to democracy itself.
The internet has recently been declared a human right, along with healthcare and water. It’s so integral to every aspect of our modern life that it can be considered essential.
What repealing net neutrality will do, essentially, is finally and absolutely make information a commodity on the internet — something to be bought and sold, bartered and released only to those who can pay for it. For democracy to function, it is imperative that citizens have inexpensive, equal access to diverse information, regardless of wealth or power.
The unlimited dissemination of information on the internet comes with a few downsides, like piracy. People rarely want to pay for the content they consume online, precisely because the internet is so “free and open.” As a result, content creators can suffer.
But repealing net neutrality swings too far to the other end of the spectrum, opening the doors to complete corporate control. The internet is too powerful, too integral to day-to-day life, to be handed over entirely to the likes of companies like Comcast.
This isn’t an isolated problem for the United States. By and large, the United States is the centre of the digital world, and American companies (Amazon, Google, Apple) dominate the market. A huge amount of the content we consume as Canadians comes from the United States — if the United States repeals net neutrality, there will be global repercussions and certainly many north of the border.