With the advent of the smartphone, people have gained unfettered access to technology and services previous generations never could have imagined. With a few taps on your touchscreen, you can have someone pick you up and drive you anywhere in the city. Going on a trip? You can find lodging nearly anywhere at an ostensibly reasonable price. Hungry? Through the miracle of technology, you can have groceries or meals from your favorite restaurant delivered right to your doorstep. It’s all thanks to the wonders of the exciting new “sharing economy.”
Of course, none of this is actually new. Uber is a taxi service that forces its drivers to provide their own cars. Airbnb allows you to rent a hotel room in some stranger’s house. There is an entire field of law that is older than the United States that regulates common carriers, such as taxis, and another field regulating hotels called hospitality law. But Uber isn’t considered a common carrier; it’s “ride sharing.” Airbnb isn’t a hotel service; it’s a “home sharing” platform.
This past Monday, President Obama formally addressed the ongoing dispute over whether the Internet should be “open” and “neutral.” In a written statement and an accompanying video, the President asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to “ implement the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality.”
In case you haven’t seen or read any technology-related news this past year, here’s a quick primer on what Neil Irwin of The New York Times described as “one of the most important policy disputes that will determine the future of the Internet.” Net neutrality, or open Internet, is the idea that Internet service providers (ISPs) “should treat all Internet traffic equally” and should not be able control what websites users can or can’t access. This is essentially the system we have been living under since the dawn of the Internet. But ISPs, including Comcast and Verizon, want to be able to manage some of that access by collecting fees from certain content providers (e.g. Netflix) “in exchange for special access to Internet users.” As Irwin noted, this type of paid prioritization is essentially the business model of cable television providers (many of whom are also ISPs). And like the “boom in content for cable television customers,” ISPs believe there would be a similar “explosion of creativity on the Internet” if they were able to prioritize websites and applications. Continue reading →