ASU assistant professor explores complexity of net neutrality in New York Times Cafe lecture

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Andrew Pilsch, assistant professor of the ASU Schools of Letters and Sciences, gives a presentation on net neutrality at the New York Times Cafe, held at the ASU Downtown Phoenix campus Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2014. (Miguel Otárola/DD)
Andrew Pilsch, assistant professor of the ASU School of Letters and Sciences, defined the Internet as a “democratic model” at the New York Times Cafe lecture Wednesday night. (Miguel Otárola/DD)

The ongoing, complex issue of net neutrality is necessary for the Internet to thrive, according to an ASU assistant professor who led a discussion Wednesday night at the Post Office.

Andrew Pilsch’s New York Times Cafe lecture comes in the wake of a string of court rulings this year involving Federal Communications Commission regulations and big-name cable companies that want more control of the content that passes through their networks.

A federal appeals court ruled in January that the FCC did not have the right to justify its current regulations without first declaring Internet service providers to be common carriers, which would make them subject to regulation.

“By transferring the Internet from a common carrier into a filtered network where those who have the most money have the loudest voices, we risk losing a precious and important tool that is radically reshaping history,” Pilsch said.

Pilsch, whose background involves the study of rhetoric and technology, reviewed the history of the issue throughout the past decade, revealing the key points in what has recently become one of the biggest and most convoluted issues in the United States.

The most recent development in the ongoing battle occurred Wednesday as Reddit, Netflix and several other websites, big and small, participated in a protest against an Internet without net neutrality. The websites uploaded a standard loading icon to simulate the slow Internet connection that many websites could suffer if net neutrality is not enforced.

Pilsch noted that with the Communications Act of 1934, the government made a key extension to common carriers, which included shipping services like trains, to include phones. Through this decision, telephone companies were required to charge a flat rate for services without discrimination against customers.

Before broadband became prominent, users had to connect to their service providers via phone in order to access the Internet. Pilsch said that because this connection occurred via phone, the legal definition of the Internet and whether or not it was a common carrier was moot, as it occurred through a channel that was already regulated.

Pilsch said the shift to cable Internet in the home was a significant problem for Internet regulation because cable television providers are granted local monopolies, similar to how railroad companies functioned. However, the FCC defines its business as an information service, which is not seen as interstate commerce, meaning it cannot be governed by federal law.

Instead, the cable companies are regulated by state and local governments. However, the FCC still has some regulatory power by simply designating cable as a service. The question comes down to whether or not the Internet is a telecommunications service (or common carrier), which phone lines fall under, or an information service, which is the designation for television and radio.

“As it stands, and this is where it gets really messy, the FCC considers the Internet an information service,” Pilsch said. “But it regulates it as a telecommunications service.”

This was the basis of the initial lawsuit by Verizon — the FCC can’t regulate the Internet if it is not interstate commerce. By not being regulated as a common carrier, companies don’t have to charge a flat rate and are able to charge more for better service. Essentially, they are attempting to move the Internet into more of a broadcast model, which Pilsch said is the opposite of the Internet’s purpose.

“The Internet is a point-to-point network in which everyone can act as a server, so it’s a much more democratic model,” Pilsch said. “This classification problem reveals that the people responsible for regulating the Internet lack the fundamental understanding of what it is and how it works.”

The lecture was the first of three in the annual New York Times Cafe series, a collaboration between the university’s Undergraduate Student Government Downtown and The New York Times in Education. Pilsch spoke to a room of students with a wide variety of majors that all share common concern and wished to discuss the complex issue.

“These (lectures) are important because we get to talk about something that impacts the world,” said Becca Smouse, director of public affairs for USGD. “This is one of the biggest issues right now because it affects every person that uses the Internet.”

Enrique Zamora, a nursing student and attendee, wasn’t optimistic about net neutrality becoming a solid component in our society.

“These companies shouldn’t be calling the shots,” he said. “They would strangle the life out of the Internet, but it should be about innovation and opportunity. Hopefully we can put an end to it, but often the person with the biggest wallet has the most control.”

Contact the reporter at Rebecca.Brisley@asu.edu

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