Net Neutrality and the Debate Over Who Owns the Internet

After the FCC was defeated in court, Internet users and activists have been wringing their hands over net neutrality. But the issue isn't about ownership; it's about universal access.

net neutrality

net neutrality

After the FCC was defeated in court, Internet users and activists have been wringing their hands over net neutrality. Netflix has been paying for better service, and civil rights groups have been warning that a “slow lane” could disenfranchise citizens. But the bigger question up for debate is: Who actually owns the Internet?

Aside from the concerns of running out of IP addresses or domain names, there’s the debate about content and infrastructure ownership. Facebook and Google own massive data centers — as do large back-end providers like Amazon. These companies may in time become like Visa or Mastercard: pushing out competition by being providers of the structure others use. But does owning the infrastructure mean you own the Internet?

These companies often aren’t interested in taking responsibility for the traffic they’re hosting. ISP’s have similar reservations as they try to distance themselves from activities like online media piracy. So no one wants the blame, but when it comes to profit, everyone seems interested in slow and fast lanes. So are ISPs and hosting providers interested in simply being providers, gatekeepers, or both?

The core of the net neutrality debate is that ISPs are not regulated as common carriers as phone companies are. This distinction means that while phone companies can charge for use, but not restrict it, ISPs are under no such constraint. Net neutrality as a doctrine was an attempt to address that imbalance. But with its position in jeopardy, there are concerns that money will rule the day, causing widespread disenfranchisement.

The fight for net neutrality is really a fight for universal access to the Internet, not ownership. But as tech companies connect large pieces of infrastructure to the network, the debate about ownership will continue. If ISPs, hosting providers or data centers ever decided to truly wield their power for maximum profit, there’s very little that could be done.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is interested in dismissing the concerns, and is apparently still fighting for net neutrality. “Reports that we are gutting the Open Internet rules are incorrect. I am here to say ‘wait a minute.’ Put away the party hats,” he said.

We’ll see.