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Editorial: The internet is worth protecting

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Using the internet in 2017 is no longer a choice for the majority of Americans, as a Wisconsin congressman suggested during a town hall last week.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., was responding to a constituent’s question regarding a recent Congressional move that allows internet service providers to sell the browsing histories of their users. The constituent was concerned with the limited number of ISPs offered in his area, along with his ability to move to a different provider should his current ISP wish to sell his browsing history.

In response, the congressman expressed a fundamental misunderstanding of the importance of the internet in the daily lives of modern Americans.

“Nobody’s got to use the internet,” said Sensenbrenner, who voted for the rollback of the Obama-era policy.

Sensenbrenner, of course, is wrong. Today the internet is used to do everything from filling out job applications to keeping in touch with family members three states away. It’s a vital communication tool as a well as an essential tool for any business or organization that hopes to compete in today’s world. The United Nations even considers internet access a human right.

From a West Virginian perspective, the issue the Wisconsin constituent is raising is relatable. With some of the slowest speeds in the nation, only 56 percent of urban West Virginians have access to advanced broadband services, with the number rising to 74 percent for rural West Virginians, according to West Virginia Public Broadcasting. In the Mountain State, it’s not outside the realm of possibility to have a single viable option — or no option at all — when it comes to basic internet access. And, if you’re one of these individuals, how do you steer clear of the possible invasion of privacy the Wisconsin constituent is hoping to avoid?

For Republicans in Washington, D.C., the answer is simple: You don’t.

These Republicans have consistently voted in favor of measures that benefit internet service providers like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon at the expense of the American consumer’s access to an affordable internet with basic privacy protections. For instance, the Republican justification for nullifying the privacy policy in question was to remove what they saw as another unneeded regulation on American businesses. Yet, the former policy only required telecommunication carriers to offer customers the opportunity to opt in or opt out of the carrier’s sharing of private information, according to The Chicago Tribune. This hardly sounds like an undue burden for multibillion dollar corporations.

Republicans are also regularly on the wrong side of net neutrality, an issue that has absolutely no good reason to be politically divisive, but is a topic that most American voters don’t quite grasp. This is understandable. Unlike marijuana legalization, civil rights issues or a politician’s latest blunder, net neutrality is less tangible and difficult to put a face to. But if you’re concerned at all about an open, affordable internet that provides an equal playing field for all users and businesses, net neutrality becomes far more important.

Net neutrality is the idea that internet service providers should treat all internet traffic equally. In a world without net neutrality, an internet service provider could feasibly create “fast lanes” for internet companies, for which those companies could pay extra to have access to faster speeds. While this may not seem dire on the surface, the underlying truth is that these “fast lanes” would prevent competition among startups and budding internet companies. They also would offset the extra cost for a “fast lane” on the consumer, who would essentially pay for the internet they’re using twice.

For example, a site like Netflix obviously uses more data per person than a site like Twitter. Without net neutrality, an ISP could legally charge Netflix for access to the “fast lane” that Twitter wouldn’t benefit as much from. Netflix, now paying extra to merely operate as it does today, would likely offset the extra cost of the “fast lane” on the consumers. In short, say goodbye to your $9.99 per month streaming service, while Netflix and your ISP are likely raking in the same amount of cash, or more.

If you’ve any doubt that net neutrality wasn’t and is not a partisan issue, a November 2014 University of Delaware survey found that 85 percent of Republicans and 81 percent of Democrats supported it. On top of support from the mass electorate, companies like Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon and eBay have backed the concept as well.

Net neutrality has historically done well in the legal spectrum; in 2015, the FCC reclassified the internet under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, which prevented “fast lanes” and gave the FCC a higher authority to enforce the “equal opportunity” method the internet had operated under up until that point and still operates under today.

But recent Congressional actions, as well as the Wisconsin congressman’s comments, are a constant reminder that the internet isn’t shielded from damaging policies that can irreparably damage how you research your next paper, browse Facebook or watch seventeen cat GIFs in a row.

As of today, the internet is still an awesome place where opportunities are bountiful for anyone who logs on. Let’s make sure we keep it that way.

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