The Right to the Internet
According to a poll sponsored by the BBC World Service, four in five adults in more than 26 countries believe that Internet access is a fundamental right. The poll asked more than 27,000 adults about their attitudes towards the Internet and found that 87 percent of regular Internet users agree that access should be a “fundamental right of all people.” More than 71 percent of non-Internet users felt that they should have the right to access the global network.
Crucial to our access to the Internet is our continued adherence to the end-to-end principle. As legal scholar and computer scientist Barbara van Schewick explained in her Opening Statement at the FCC’s Workshop on Innovation, Investment, and the Open Internet, the “network was designed to be as general as possible in order to support a wide variety of applications with different needs. So when a new application comes along, the network doesn’t have to be changed to allow the application to run. All the innovator has to do is write the program that runs on a computer attached to the Internet.” As van Schewick notes, the low cost of developing new applications has enabled the creation of eBay and Skype, even though many questioned those applications’ ability to succeed in the marketplace (who would buy goods through online auctions?) or their plausibility (network engineers didn’t initially think internet telephony was possible).
Now, however, sophisticated technology is available that “enables network providers to identify the applications and content on their network and control their execution.” According to van Schewick, the “original Internet was application-blind,” but “today’s Internet is not.” This matters to access and innovation. Although a programmer may have a great idea for a video platform that will revolutionize the way people watch television, cable providers could squash it. They could block the inventor’s application or slow it down. Why would they do that? As van Schewick explains, maybe the application competes with theirs, maybe they want a share of the inventor’s profits, maybe they don’t like the content, or maybe the application is slowed down to manage bandwidth. Whatever the reason, the network provider can ensure the failure of the inventor’s project, chasing away potential investors and other inventors. In the end, this risks the diversity of innovation and its concomitant societal benefits. If network providers “pick winners and losers on the Internet, if they decide how users can use the network, users may end up with applications that they would not have chosen, and may be forced to use the Internet in a way that does not create the value it could.”
In short, our failure to commit to network neutrality, to permit discrimination among applications, has a deep impact on what people now believe is their fundamental right. van Schewick closed her Open Statement with a telling story. She asked if the audience had tried to explained to their partners’ grandparents why they should get the Internet. She explained that she had and noted that she didn’t say: “Grandma, you have to get the Internet? It’s cool! It lets you send data packets back and forth.” “No, I said: ‘If you get the Internet, you can call us and see your grandchildren on the screen. And if we have new pictures, you’ll be able to see them immediately after we send them. And you can read about everything you can possibly imagine’ . . . ” Thus, by “protecting the factors that have fostered application innovation in the past, we can make sure that the Internet will be even more useful and valuable in the future.”