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How COVID-19 is Impacting the Net Neutrality Discussion

How COVID-19 is Impacting the Net Neutrality Discussion

The cloud cast by COVID-19 wouldn’t seem to have very much of a silver lining at all, but if one looks very closely, there is the faintest one there. As more and more people are subscribing to self isolation and similar practices, remote work has become a more pressing need. In response, many Internet service providers and mobile data carriers are taking action and putting changes in place that actually resemble net neutrality.

Before we get too far into this, let’s go over what “net neutrality” is.

The Foundations of Net Neutrality

The fundamental idea behind net neutrality is that of the open Internet: that all content and all websites are given equal footing, regardless of the platform used to access them.  Basically, an Internet service provider (ISP) wouldn’t be allowed to make a user’s connection to a big global enterprise’s website faster than it would be to your website.

One analogy for net neutrality that many experts have used is that of the “dumb pipe.” In a city’s water system, all users would ideally get the same water pressure--their individual identity and specific use of the water isn’t factored into the speed at which they receive it.

Net neutrality has its biggest supporters in human rights, civil rights, and consumer advocacy groups, as well as in many major websites. However, Internet Service Providers and telecom companies have been resistant to the idea in the past, largely because of some of the other implications brought by net neutrality. 

The entire issue is fascinating, but is far too in-depth and convoluted for a single blog post--the important thing to keep in mind here is that telecoms and ISPs have generally been opposed to net neutrality in the past.

What the COVID-19 Outbreak Has Caused

With coronavirus running amok around the world, and more and more people subscribing to the social isolation policies suggested by entities like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it has become clear to many that connectivity has become a critical need for our society. As a result, the Federal Communications Commission has taken steps and released a pledge for ISPs and telecoms to take up.

Here is the Keep Americans Connected Pledge, as written in a press release given by the FCC on March 13:

“Given the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on American society, [[Company Name]] pledges for the next 60 days to: 

  • (1) not terminate service to any residential or small business customers because of their inability to pay their bills due to the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic; 
  • (2) waive any late fees that any residential or small business customers incur because of their economic circumstances related to the coronavirus pandemic; and 
  • (3) open its Wi-Fi hotspots to any American who needs them.”

Dozens of providers had signed the pledge within a day, and many others have taken other steps to help soften the blow dealt by COVID-19 in addition to what is demanded by the Keep Americans Connected Pledge. In a statement, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said,

“As the coronavirus outbreak spreads and causes a series of disruptions to the economic, educational, medical, and civic life of our country, it is imperative that Americans stay connected. Broadband will enable them to communicate with their loved ones and doctors, telework, ensure their children can engage in remote learning, and — importantly — take part in the ‘social distancing’ that will be so critical to limiting the spread of this novel coronavirus.”

Many observers have noted that this approach relies on many of the tenets of net neutrality, but in the face of a disaster like COVID-19, it also seems very necessary in order to support the large amount of people who will have no choice but to work from home at some point, and will need that Internet access and speed.

What do you think? Has your mobile carrier or Internet provider lifted data caps and other restrictions to help you rely on the Internet better? Share your thoughts in the comments--just do your best to keep it civil.

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