One day, we just might look back on December 2017 as the month that changed the internet forever. It sounds hyperbolic, but the issue of net neutrality is that important.
The discussion has re-emerged in recent weeks after Federal Communications Chairman Ajit Pai, a former lawyer for Verizon, announced his intention to schedule a December 14th vote on whether or not to dismantle two-year-old regulations designed to safeguard the neutrality of broadband network providers.
Most industry observers consider the vote a formality and firmly expect Pai and his five-member commission to reverse a 2015 ruling reclassifying broadband services under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934.
Sounds thrilling, huh? Though net neutrality may not outwardly seem like an issue for the church to consider, it could have significant consequences for the work of the church next year and for years to come.
But first, here are the basics.
What Is Net Neutrality?
It’s likely you think very little about net neutrality in a typical day. Though the topic has been debated vigorously from time to time over the past decade (usually when a court case or a FCC ruling has put it in the news), it’s not a topic most of us in the church spend time discussing or contemplating on a regular basis. Maybe that’s because the neutrality of the net has been one of the guiding assumptions of the Internet Age.
Net neutrality, in its purest form, is simply the expectation that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will treat all internet content as the same regardless of where it comes from or what it’s about. It’s why you don’t have to consider your ISP before choosing which digital video company to use when you watch a movie. You just choose the one with the best price and selection. You’ll have the same access no matter which one you choose.
Just to be clear about the terms, both sides of the net neutrality debate claim they support the basic neutrality of the internet. The current debate revolves around a key FCC ruling from 2015, which has been upheld by the federal courts, that reclassifies broadband services as a “common carrier” under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. Originally written by congress to deal with the then-young telephone industry, the act covers a host of public utilities and includes a variety of regulations designed to ensure companies in these industries are serving the public interest.
The FCC of 2015 reclassified broadband internet under Title II of the act in order to satisfy the demands of courts that had ruled against it in cases that challenged earlier sets of FCC rules. The proposed change will reclassify broadband under Title I of the same 1934 Communications Act, which will include less regulation.
What Does Net Neutrality Mean for the Church?
It’s easy for church leaders to ignore this issue and let politicians, ISPs, technologists, and others duke it out over the future of the internet. But that would be a mistake. We’ve compiled a decent-sized list of pros and cons to think through below, but first, here are a few reasons why the church must stay involved in this issue:
1. Worship service streaming could be impacted by these changes
Many churches have begun to dip their toes in livestreaming in recent years. It has become one of the key ways churches have expanded engagement beyond the four walls of the church building. Effective livestreaming requires higher internet speeds. If ISPs choose to slow down channels for smaller organizations (like churches) so it can speed up channels for those who pay for more speed, it’s possible (maybe even likely) that livestreaming speeds would suffer.
2. Churches need tech innovation
Both sides say these changes could impact future innovation and infrastructure investment. For at least the last half century, churches have lagged behind in technological innovation. This means they have the most to lose if the rate of innovation and infrastructure development slows.
3. Churches have a key stake in anything impacting freedom of speech
With the views of many churches increasingly at odds with the broader culture, they will have to keep a particularly close eye on anything that might limit free speech—specifically including any technology based restrictions. Regardless of a church’s theological and cultural convictions, most recognize a need to evangelize and minister in some manner to their surrounding communities. The church should carefully consider any attempt to tinker with the marketplace of ideas in a way that could jeopardize its ability to do this.
4. There are ethical dimensions to the debate
Both sides argue that the issue impacts poor and rural communities at an uneven rate. You could probably argue either side of the moral argument on the issue, but it would be hard to make a strong case for inaction. Moreover, these changes could affect content produced by the church. Effectively, the poor could be withheld from online access to the ministry of your church and its gospel message. We should be cautious about any changes that could create a “pay to play” scenario to access the internet or content (distributed by a given church or ministry) which could disproportionately impact the poor.
Pros of Title II (Support of Net Neutrality)
You’ll find lots of theories about how the reclassification of broadband will impact the internet, but the truth is we really don’t know. Before broadband was reclassified in 2015, the internet was subject to rules that the courts have said aren’t valid. No one knows exactly what will happen now that broadband will be regulated as a Title I industry but without some of the FCC rules that had guided the industry in its early years.
Because of this, many of the pros and cons of net neutrality are often based on hypothetical situations. Those advocating for the more extensive Title II regulations typically give arguments like these:
Pro #1: Title II regulations have allowed for more oversight of the industry
According to Wired.com, ending the Title II classification will strip oversight down to only a “weak disclosure requirement” (which simply will require ISPs to tell their customers when they are not acting as neutral arbiters of their services).
Pro #2: Consumers will have limited free-market remedies for price hikes because of a lack of competition
According to the FCC’s own numbers, 51 percent of Americans have zero or one choice for broadband services. ISPs with few competitors will be free to raise prices to rates that will particularly disadvantage low-income consumers.
Pro #3: ISPs will be free to sell their services in bundles much like cable providers do now
In other words, instead of purchasing an all-inclusive internet package that allows you to access any website or app you’d like for one monthly fee, you could be given the choice of purchasing packages that include a specific service (for example, you might be offered a social media package, an online video service package, and a news package). Sites and apps outside of those packages would either be blocked or slowed to a rate that makes them unusable. Those advancing this argument have recently turned to Portugal as an example of a country that has seen this happen, though Snopes.com mostly disputes this.
Proponents of the Title II safeguards believe this would fundamentally change how we access the internet and could have adverse effects we can’t foresee currently.
Pro #4: These changes could open the door for ISPs to limit free speech
Maybe the most concerning argument that comes against the proposed changes is based on the ability of ISPs to clamp down on content with which they don’t agree. It doesn’t mean they will do this, but observers believe they’ll have more ability to do so. Many express concern this could limit the voice of minorities, the poor, and those with unpopular political, social, or religious views.
Pro #5: Without the safeguards of Title II, ISPs will give preferential treatment to services they own
Many ISPs already have direct or indirect relationships with media companies with an interest in fast internet speeds. Some observers expect companies like Comcast to give Hulu and NBC.com preferred speeds. Since more than half of consumers have no choice for broadband coverage, this could place severe geographic limitations on the media people can consume through broadband.
Pro #6: A move away from Title II will stifle innovation and entrepreneurship
Some observers expect ISPs to begin charging media companies to access their broadband networks. Key players like Netflix, Disney, Spotify, and others will likely be able to navigate these market changes much easier than startups and small companies. This will give large companies an unfair advantage in their pursuit of customers and possibly push the smaller companies out of the market altogether. This could mean future innovative companies never make it to the market.
Cons of Title II (Opposition to Net Neutrality)
Predictably, the most influential (though not the only) advocates for reclassifying ISPs once again are the ISPs themselves. You’ll also find people who’re generally opposed to government regulations supporting the proposed changes.
Some of the arguments you hear on this side include:
Con #1: ISPs have no interest in limiting consumer choice or speech
The National Cable and Telecommunications Association believes ISPs have a “vested interest in not blocking, throttling, or prioritizing content” because it makes bad business sense and consumers don’t want it. ISPs are in the business of making money. The market simply won’t allow them to do anything as draconian as the other side suggests. They also point to a different set of statistics that suggest 75 percent of consumers have at least two choices of ISPs. If consumers have choices, they won’t let ISPs tinker with longstanding practices of neutrality.
Con #2: The regulations involved in Title II have hurt the rate of infrastructure investment in the broadband industry over the last two years
Want faster broadband? Those in favor of the FCCs reversing its position say the last two years under Title II regulations have limited infrastructure investment from ISPs. They say investments in infrastructure have dropped 5.6 percent in that timespan. Proponents of these changes say ISPs need the money generated by removing the regulations in order to better sink money into their networks. They specifically cite the need for more funds to better equip rural networks.
Con #3: These changes will limit government interference
Chairman Pai has suggested this change would take the regulation of the industry out of the hands of government bureaucrats and put it squarely in the hands of technology professionals who better understand the industry. He argues that the Title II regulations amount to governmental micromanaging of ISPs. These changes, he says, allow consumers to choose service plans that work best for them instead of having their choices dictated. Some commentators continue that line of thought, writing that internet bandwidth is a finite resource that must be allocated by someone. These changes simply ensure the free market will help allocate this resource instead of the government.
Not a Neutral Issue
Sometimes, we forget the internet is still in its infancy when looked at from a historical perspective. It has only been 26 years since the debut of the World Wide Web on August 6, 1991. The breathtaking speed of the internet’s development and impact upon everyday life has often blurred our view of its maturity.
But, make no mistake about it, the internet is young.
Its future development is by no means set in stone. Decisions made today could still sway greatly how the industry will evolve over time.
Churches can look at the issue from a variety of angles, but they can’t afford to ignore it altogether.