The battle for the next Internet saw another salvo of shots this week with President Obama’s statement from the White House concerning his support for net neutrality. In a statement posted on the White House website, the President acknowledged the importance of the Internet by calling it essential to the American economy and way of life. He further ruled out any support for blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization while at the same time demanding transparency between ISPs and their customers. Calling on the FCC to protect and promote net neutrality, the President stated that net neutrality will foster more investment and innovation, and that the FCC must protect and promote access to broadband as a vital service.
Net Neutrality vs. Net Equality
However, in all the arguments over net neutrality it is becoming overwhelmingly evident that net quality has also suffered under the tenure of the telecom giants. In an article for The Hill, Georgetown University Visiting Policy Scholar Anna-Maria Kovacs argues that net equality is of equal importance as net neutrality when it comes to driving the economy in poor and minority areas. Citing a study by the Selig Center, she notes that minority buying power stood at $3.2 trillion in 2013 and is still growing with the demand for online vendors of goods and services. Often underemployed, small businesses in minority areas may also turn to the Internet in an attempt to reach others with their goods and services in turn. Entrepreneurial platforms such as eBay, Etsy, Shopify, and other services have provided small business owners with a way to showcase their brand to an audience that they might not otherwise reach.
However, wide disparities exist between individual communities and socioeconomic levels within those communities. In a 2013 report the United States Census Bureau, like President Obama, acknowledges the importance of the Internet to all facets of American life from school work, to the workplace, to healthcare our interconnectedness with the Internet grows every year. Key findings of this report include:
• 83.8 percent of US households have a computer, with 78.5 percent having either a laptop or a desktop, while 63.6 percent used a handheld such as a tablet or smartphone.
• In black and Hispanic households total computer ownership drops from 83.8 percent to 75.8 percent and 79.7 percent respectively.
• 73.4 percent of households report having a high-speed Internet connection, however in black and Hispanic households these numbers dropped to 60.6 percent and 65.9 percent respectively.
• Socioeconomic factors have an even greater impact on computer ownership and broadband use. In households making less than $25,000 a year only 48.4 percent report having any Internet connection at all and only 62.4 percent report owning a computer – whether a laptop, desktop, or handheld device.
By regulating the Internet as a utility as many pro net neutrality organizations – and now the President – advocate, many feel that the playing field would be leveled in terms of access to broadband. At the same time the price of broadband would necessarily decrease much as telephone rates have dropped for landline use, or the price of cell phones and cell phone plans have dropped over the course of the past 10 years. By reclassifying Internet service under title II of the Telecommunications Act the Internet would be recognized as utility much like landline service or electricity.
While arguments for protecting net neutrality focus on the equality of all Internet users, arguments for net equality focus on quality of life even for those who do not now have access to a home Internet connection of any kind, relying instead on public Wi-Fi, or institutional computers in schools or libraries. In communities where library and school funding is inconsistent adults and children may not get the instruction and guidance they need to properly use and access the Internet and all of the information that they need to complete assignments, or to access basic information about government services, healthcare, or news and current events. In order to remain the economic powerhouse that it has become, the next incarnation of the Internet must address inequality across educational and socioeconomic levels and allow traditionally marginalized and underprivileged groups equal access that those with higher income and more education take for granted.
Being able to access information, own and operate your own eCommerce business on platforms such as Shopify, or patronize other small businesses in order to keep the small business economic engine viable means that equal opportunity must cease to be a buzzword and become actionable. By allowing a cartel of corporations to determine whose broadband needs are prioritized and addressed or marginalized and downgraded, both neutrality and equality will suffer. Leveling the playing field for all parties is no longer enough in a world where the Internet is now pervasive in all levels of modern life. The Internet requires a new playing field, one where all players will have an equal chance to shine.