Internet service providers are private businesses earning money from connecting you to the vastness of the web, through their equipment. For over a decade this was taken by them as little more than them simply taking your cable, stringing it across the room and connecting it to their cable which was connected to the internet, in simplified terms.
However, recently service providers have discovered that there is profit to be made by regulating how fast your internet goes based on the site you are on. On a basic level, it would appear to them good business that if you were looking at their competitors website, that your internet should go slower. It’s now been identified that some service providers even took it a step further, though, and accepted lucrative contracts from some websites to give their own websites faster speeds compared to the separate businesses competitors.
Why it’s Bad
The problem with limited internet speed based on the highest bidder is that it is a terribly slippery slope. What happens if a service provider decides that instead of just slowing access to their competitors, they simply block their websites completely? What if they decide to then also block every online store other than Wal-Mart? Neither of these has actually played out yet, nor is there any indication that they have been considered, but they are theoretically possible.
How to Stop it
I’m not usually a fan of adding more regulation, but in this case it is needed. Those that argue that it isn’t tend to say that the industry can self-police, that those service providers that do regulate internet speed for their own gains will be held accountable by the court of public opinion and by customers speaking with their wallets.
However, we’ve already seen that isn’t the case. In every case where service providers have been accused of regulating the free flow of data, they’ve attempted to cover it up saying that it’s a ‘natural fluctuation in internet speeds’, despite proof being there that the ‘natural fluctuations’ that are being recorded happen only when accessing certain websites. They’ve proven that they won’t self-regulate, and customers haven’t yet been informed well enough on the subject to take their business elsewhere.
Playing Devil’s Advocate
Now, we certainly can’t say that every time our internet slows down while on a competitor’s website it is the fault of the service provider. One of the reasons that their claims of ‘natural fluctuations’ works so well is because that’s a real thing. The internet does, in fact, have speed fluctuations from time to time, and those times are bound to coincidentally happen while on competitor’s websites.
It’s also human nature for the executives of the service providers to want to maximize their profit. We all do that every time we go to the store with a coupon, we want to keep as much money in our pocket as possible. We do it every time we vie for a promotion at work, wanting more money to go into our pocket.
This is where regulation needs to step into the circle. Without something on the books saying they can’t do something, so long as there are no negative consequences a business will do whatever is better for their bottom line. Eliminating the threat competitors pose to a business is a long-standing tradition in the business world, and this is simply a 21st Century manifestation of that tendency.
American Civil Liberties Union