Why You Should Care About Net Neutrality

I wrote an article for the Chaldean News, a paper in Michigan for the Iraqi-Catholic-American community. 

Why You Should Care About Net Neutrality

You may have heard something about “net neutrality” lately because it’s been in the news. Recently, Michigan Congressman Gary Peters, who is running for U.S. Senate, has come out strongly in favor of it, which is something both Democrats and Republicans should celebrate. Every major technology company, from Google and eBay to Etsy and Kickstarter, support it. So do the National Association of Realtors, which represents your local real estate agent. So do the very top investors in the nation, the people who invested in services you use like Dropbox, Airbnb, Tumblr and Twitter. John Oliver, the former Daily Show comedian, recently featured net neutrality on his HBO show in a 13-minute feature that inspired so many people to complain to a government agency that they crashed its website.

What’s the fuss over this really geeky term? Why should you care about it as much as I do?  Net neutrality matters because it is the Internet version of the American dream. It makes entrepreneurship in the 21st century possible and is essential to our economic growth and for Michigan to create the next great company.

Net neutrality is the simple principle that cable and phone companies that offer you access to the Internet shouldn’t determine which websites you go to, shouldn’t block some websites, and shouldn’t charge other websites for a “fast lane” while leaving every church, nonprofit, and small business in the “slow lane.”

Under a rule called net neutrality, phone and cable companies wouldn’t be able to prefer some websites over others, and websites wouldn’t need permission from cable companies (and a lot of money to pay them) just to have a website that competes with existing giants.

Essentially, net neutrality would keep the Internet the way it is now. It would keep the Internet the amazing engine of democratic speech and economic opportunity it has been. The only reason Internet freedom is threatened is a court decision in January that said the government agency with the power to adopt net neutrality rules, the Federal Communications Commission, didn’t jump through the right legal hoops to do it.

Right now, the chairman of that agency, who is also well-known for formerly being the head cable lobbyist, has proposed abandoning net neutrality and letting phone and cable companies discriminate against some websites, leaving them in a slow lane where their site loads slowly and their videos buffer, while charging others for a “fast lane.”

That’s what the fuss is about. More than 200 tech companies (large and small, from Microsoft and Google to CodeCombat), 100 major investors, dozens of churches and nonprofits, and more than 3 million people have complained to the FCC and called on the FCC to keep the Internet the way it has always been—open.

Right now, the Internet is a force for small business, entrepreneurs and the little people.

The Internet has opened up a new world for entrepreneurs. You can build an iPhone app to help people book cabs or share photos. You can start an eBay storefront online buying and selling goods globally. You can use Etsy to sell hand-crafted jewelry and hand-made clothes. You can use Kickstarter to raise money for your new company by pre-selling your latest invention. Or you can simply use the Internet to market your new accounting firm or pizza shop through Yelp or Facebook or advertise on the Chaldean News online.

The Internet has also been a force for democracy — increasing all of our access to news, both at home and around the world. It has enabled democratic movements around the world. It supports independent musicians and filmmakers — who have also rallied behind net neutrality. When I was growing up in Warren and Bloomfield Hills, I had access to just a few local newspapers, and could only publish somewhere if they accepted my letter to the editor. Now, my little cousins in Michigan can read news from around the world, including independent blogs, thought leaders on Twitter, and new media models like Vox.

On a day-to-day basis, the Internet has changed how we do so many things, little things with our families — emailing and Facebooking with extended family, buying birthday gifts for two-day delivery, watching TV or learning a new language on the go, reading stories and sharing videos with a click of a button, and video calling between grandparents (in West Bloomfield) and little girls (including my two nieces in Cleveland).

All of this is possible because nobody controls the Internet and people can invent new things on the Internet without anyone’s permission. The Internet is actually a network of connect computers all agreeing to speak the same computer language. Nobody owns it. Companies like Comcast and AT&T just give you access to things on the Internet — they don’t create or build the sites you use most often. They are gateways to others’ businesses.

Not only would cable and phone companies have an economic incentive to impose costs on entrepreneurs, they would also have less incentive to invest in their networks. Once cable and phone companies can start selling access to an Internet fast lane, they will have no incentive to make the slow lane any good. Most small businesses and people without billions in revenue will most likely end up in the slow lane.

Chaldeans are such an entrepreneurial people. Indeed, I wouldn’t own my own business were it not for my Chaldean parents who encouraged me for years to start my own business — and I now that I have, my law firm has represented some of the largest companies in the world, including Google, Dropbox, eBay and Twitter, on some of their most interesting and important legal issues.

But Chaldeans have faced restrictions to entrepreneurship in many venues. We understand the importance of being able to build businesses with our families and colleagues. Imagine if you had to get permission from Detroit Edison just to sell a new toaster you built. Or imagine if you invented a new kind of air conditioner and needed to negotiate with and pay Detroit Edison permission to sell it or make sure it gets enough electricity. That’s not how it works. The electricity grid is open for anyone to use however they want, supporting innovation in appliances. If the Internet remains open, we can continue having innovation in applications.

Net neutrality is important because it makes it possible for any individual to have a fair chance to become a successful Internet entrepreneur. In the simplest terms, net neutrality is the idea that the Internet continues to operate as an even playing field. It enables the American dream.

Right now, in Michigan, there is an economic resurgence. I live in Washington, DC, where I have lived for much of my time as a lawyer since graduating from Harvard Law School years ago. People talk about Detroit here and talk about the hope they have for its turnaround. The technology investments happening in Detroit, the engineering students creating startups straight out of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and entrepreneurial creativity and hope of Michigan’s young people is not lost on people in government. And one of your key levers for economic growth and opportunity is the open Internet that billions of people around the world have embraced.

The least the U.S. government can do now is not undermine that opportunity. So it’s good to see Michigan legislators like Peters — and hopefully others across the state — being visionary in standing with the future, not the past, in standing with the small businesses and entrepreneurs and families and churches, and following free market principles.

If you want to let your voice known, use battleforthenet.com or dearfcc.org.

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