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Net neutrality must be maintained to preserve freedom of speech, equality

By Pravin Visakan

Jan. 23, 2018 10:49 p.m.

To the right kind of person, Boelter Hall contains hallowed ground. Wander its many dim corridors, and you’ll eventually come upon a tiny room with green walls and a glass door. Glance at the placard beside it and you’ll read the words: “Birthplace of the Internet.”

From sick memes to technological milestones, UCLA has long been a vital force in the development of the internet. But that same technology is now endangered by recent changes made by the Federal Communications Commission under President Donald Trump’s administration.

The FCC voted in December to remove net neutrality regulations for internet service providers. In short, these rules prevented ISPs from modifying a customer’s internet speed based on the sort of content they try to access. Net neutrality meant that any kind of data from any website was on an even footing – the transfer speed of content was dependent only on the consumer and the content site, not the infrastructure in between.

Though these regulations are gone at the federal level, state governments are making an effort to bring them back. In California, Senate Bill 460 has been introduced to reinstate consumer protections. These include allowing internet users to sue ISPs for neutrality infractions, and requiring ISPs to abide by neutrality to form contracts with the state government. Additionally, the California Attorney General’s office has sued the FCC, along with other states, in order to restore the protections.

SB 460 was introduced in February to expand internet access in California, and has been stalled since. Debate over the implementation details has spawned several revisions in the last month to include net neutrality provisions. But the bill lacks the teeth to enforce neutrality in California, and the clock is ticking for legislators. Businesses, users and particularly students rely on it to guarantee a healthy marketplace and open access to information, and legislators needs to buckle down and bring SB 460 to fruition, while addressing its shortcomings, to make that happen.

Student-run startups, for example, are one increasingly major business segment that could feel the heat of the new regulatory environment.

Repealing net neutrality stands to benefit ISPs, but at the cost of small internet businesses. Despite the FCC’s use of the terms “internet freedom” and “openness” in press releases and interviews, the absence of these protections stands to close off and inhibit access to smaller, less established web-based companies.

“Startups, from their very nature, generally have less invested capital,” said Ramesh Srinivasan, a professor at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. “The startup won’t necessarily have the same amount of funds to compete with a bigger entity or larger corporation.”

Without net neutrality, ISPs would be free to charge companies and consumers more money for faster access to content. Larger companies hold a financial edge required to cough up money to ISPs so consumers can access their web services faster. Household names like YouTube and Netflix are likely to win out, while companies like student startups could fall prey to anti-competitive practices.

These are concerns that notable scholars, including Leonard Kleinrock, a distinguished professor of computer science at UCLA who is considered the father of the internet, have brought up in light of the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality. When even one of the internet’s creators says repealing net neutrality is bad for the internet, you know something is wrong.

Additionally, without net neutrality, ISPs can slow access to content that has high data usage, such as when consumers stream videos or photos, and charge higher fees for unfettered access. Though this internet access is ultimately provided to many by UCLA, college-aged people are large consumers of internet media, according to the Pew Research Center, and upcoming price impacts could make their way to students if the university ends up having to foot a higher bill.

The repeal of net neutrality also has implications for free speech, Srinivasan said. In the same way that small businesses would be disadvantaged, smaller independent media outlets could have a harder time being heard. Net neutrality means that news, opinions and information from all sides of the political spectrum are brought to audiences at the same speed. Compared to traditional media, such as television, the internet is more open, free and accessible. These qualities are harmed in an environment where paid prioritization is legal.

SB 460 currently modifies existing California law to allow internet users to sue ISPs that violate net neutrality practices. It also makes contracts between the state government and ISPs contingent on the providers abiding by neutrality rules. Failure to do so results in charges of perjury for the company.

But the bill does not currently denote a way for California to hold misbehaving ISPs accountable. Previous versions of the bill charged the California Public Utilities Commission, a body that regulates utilities such as phone lines, and the district attorney’s office with enforcing net neutrality. Critics, however, called the commission overburdened and ineffective, and the controversy even spawned a rival bill.

While the concerns with the original bill have merit, the advantages of an enforcing body should not be dismissed. Individual consumers and smaller startups cannot always afford to enter into legal battles as easily as well-established ISPs. The state needs to invest resources into policing our internet – otherwise, this entire effort to protect it might fail those who need it most.

Representatives of telecommunications companies have argued that state-specific internet regulation could result in a patchwork of neutrality laws that would make development difficult across the country – ironic, maybe, for a technology designed to eliminate barriers.

But state policies are possibly the only viable solution to internet woes in the current national political environment. California’s prominence in the technology industry means implementing it here will likely result in greater impact elsewhere in the country. Additionally, ISPs already deal with a variety of bylaws and rules that can be specific even to cities. Statewide rules that are functionally similar to regulations from the previous presidential administration hardly seem like undue burdens.

Consumers and businesses across the state will suffer under Trumpian policies governing the internet. Net neutrality is important and needs to be maintained. It means that hallowed door in Boelter Hall can keep being a monument to something great, instead of the grave for something that once was.

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Pravin Visakan | Opinion columnist
Visakan is an Opinion columnist.
Visakan is an Opinion columnist.
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