Rolling back net neutrality will create another digital divide

The Federal Communications Commission’s move toward rolling back nearly every rule covering net neutrality is a sharp jolt. It threatens the value creation potential of the Internet — a platform for informing millions across the globe, delivering education to remote corners and serving as a gateway to critical services such as finding a job or paying your taxes (and not so critical ones like selecting a restaurant or making an impulse purchase at Amazon).

In the proposal, the commission calls its 2015 ruling embracing net neutrality rules a “misguided and legally flawed approach.” It repeatedly states that the 2015 order “erred,” was “incorrect” and came to “erroneous conclusions.” Removing these rules, the commission now argues, will “facilitate critical broadband investment and innovation by removing regulatory uncertainty and lowering compliance costs.”

Net neutrality is founded on the core principle that everyone should have equal access to the internet, regardless of what content the individual chooses to consume. It is the only way we can ensure a level playing field for all citizens of this country.

We have many sources of disparity we already reckon with regularly — income, education, race, health, gender, geographic location, and the list goes on. Why are we creating another one? Unencumbered access to the Internet is a necessity today for all manner of personal, economic and social transactions in our digitally connected society.

For decades we lamented the digital divide, in which certain areas of the United States had limited or no access to broadband services. These inequalities were being addressed, albeit slowly, with various broadband expansion programs rolled out over the past few years. Yet, the rural-urban access divide in our country has not been bridged. Despite a 2016 court ruling declaring that the Internet can be treated as a public utility, the Pew Research Center declared in a report this spring that the “digital gap between rural and non-rural America persists.” We clearly have a ways to go before the opportunities afforded by Internet access are available to all. And today, we are further faced with the threat of Internet content being differentially accessible based on the consumer’s ability to pay.

But wait, that’s not all: The proposed change will also harm those with little bargaining power — the small business trying to sell its wares, the mom-and-pop restaurant that only attracts local customers and the local entrepreneur with the “cool” business idea who is looking for funding. The telecom providers could charge them large fees for making their content available.

As with every other policy, a roll-back of net neutrality will create winners and losers. The telecoms stand to win big. They can decide what content they want to make available, at what speed and what price. The internet behemoths will likely be OK; their substantial presence on K Street in Washington, D.C., and numerous government relations professionals can ensure that their interests are protected.

But what about us — you and me? Do we really need large corporations making these decisions for us? Do we want to be faced with the situation where we get a message saying that the site or information we are looking for is not available through whichever Internet service provider we choose to give our money to? Do we want our choices limited by what our local cable provider decides is best for us (and most profit-worthy for it)?

The Internet is all about freedom and openness and diversity and the multitude of important values these simple words embed. In management education we increasingly use the word “open” to characterize the nature of important business activities today like “alliances” and “innovation.” Let’s not create another walled garden that will limit our access to knowledge and services that our society so desperately needs. Let’s not create another digital divide.

Ritu Agarwal (ragarwal@rhsmith.umd.edu) is a professor, senior associate dean for research and the Robert H. Smith Dean’s Chair of Information Systems at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is also the founder and director of the school’s Center for Health Information and Decision Systems.

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