by Aparna Nathan
figures by Jovana Andrejevic

When the internet was born, it was just a pair of connected computers that transmitted data back and forth. Now, it’s a place where you can make purchases, connect (or reconnect) with friends, run a business, and pay bills without ever leaving your home. The internet has brought the whole world within reach with just a few keystrokes—but not for everyone.

According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), 19 million Americans don’t have access to broadband internet, defined as 25 Mbps upload and 3 Mbps download speeds. (For context, that’s the internet speed required for three people browsing the internet or checking email, or fewer people if they’re streaming high-definition video or playing video games.) Even among people who do have broadband access, roughly five million only have access via mobile data because their homes don’t have wired connections—only 92% of the nation has access to fixed broadband connections. Once you step outside of the United States, that number can get much lower. And in some of the largest internet markets—like China, with over 700 million internet users—governments and other forces significantly curtail the content that is accessible to the public.

There’s no debate over whether the internet is important. But according to a 2016 United Nations resolution, internet access is more than just an amenity: it’s a right. That means that people should not only be able to get online, but they should also be able to use the internet without restrictions. As the capabilities of the internet expand, the regulatory reins have been passed around by governments, private companies, and nonprofits, leaving consumers to take matters into their own hands.

Internet by the people, for the people

Just two years ago in rural Greenfield, Massachusetts, only 60 percent of residents had access to broadband internet. The same was true in the Appalachian community of Garrett County, Maryland. This number keeps popping up; across the rural United States, 39 percent of residents don’t have access to broadband internet (Figure 1). There are a wide variety of reasons why the tendrils of the internet haven’t made it to these pockets. For one, these communities are situated in geographic terrains that are challenging for cables to navigate. The sparseness of the population—and by extension, the limited income for the Internet Service Providers (ISPs)—also serves as an economic deterrent to serve these towns.

Figure 1: The urban-rural internet divide. Urban areas are more appealing markets for ISPs, leaving rural areas with worse or nonexistent internet connections.

Lack of internet access often disproportionately affects specific groups. In addition to plaguing rural communities, it places an extra burden on the elderly, low-income families, and black or Hispanic households. This leaves kids unable to do their homework without going to a public library and parents unable to pay their bills online. It also keeps resources like job forums, free online courses, and reliable communication out of the hands of the people who need them the most (Figure 2). To address this disparity, the FCC’s Connect America Fund provides grants to support the expansion of internet access in these areas.

But towns like Greenfield are also taking charge; when ISPs won’t come to them, they become their own ISPs. Greenfield is just one of hundreds of communities that have set up their own publicly run broadband networks. This includes laying the cables that outside ISPs are reluctant to provide, subsidizing the cost to make it affordable for everyone, and teaching residents about the added benefits of being connected. In other towns, ISPs have set up broadband infrastructure themselves but offer the service at exorbitant prices to recoup the expense. Nonprofits like EveryoneOn are working in these communities to negotiate on behalf of residents for cheaper packages from ISPs.

Figure 2: Persistent gaps in broadband access. Even as internet access has expanded, age-, income-, and community-based disparities remain.

A luxury or a public utility?

Once you make it onto the internet, you would hope to be able to navigate it freely. But that’s not always the case. Censorship is one clear obstacle, allowing the government or others that hold sway over internet access to block legal content. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution outlaws censorship, but the same protections don’t exist in some other countries. For example, China’s policy of “internet sovereignty” mandates that, since the internet exists within the country, it is subject to the country’s laws and restrictions. This includes blocking certain websites (like Facebook), disallowing online anonymity, and monitoring content published by news outlets. But other forms of internet restriction are more ambiguous.

Even without outright censorship, internet access can still be steered by powerful players, such as ISPs themselves. At various points over the last decade, AT&T has blocked Skype calls, Google Hangouts, and FaceTime on its cellular network, potentially because they competed with voice calls, or because they burdened their network. Similarly, MetroPCS blocked Netflix in 2011. Sometimes certain content can just be slowed down, rather than being blocked altogether, or providers can create an internet hierarchy, with some users getting priority access by paying a premium (Figure 3).

The counterpoint to this system is net neutrality: the belief that the internet should be unrestricted and freely traversed by all people without discrimination against certain content or users. Net neutrality treats the internet as a public utility, much like water and gas, so it can’t be manipulated by companies at the public’s detriment. Proponents of net neutrality argue that it is simply an issue of democracy; the internet is a medium for free speech, and ISPs cannot curtail that. Additionally, if all internet traffic is treated equally, big companies won’t have a competitive advantage over smaller companies. On the other hand, net neutrality’s critics claim that it’s unfair for companies to clog the information highway with high-data applications and that charging companies for their websites’ accessibility could help subsidize the cost of improved internet infrastructure.

Figure 3: How repealing net neutrality changes the rules of the internet. Without net neutrality, companies can pay ISPs for preferential access to their websites.

In the U.S., net neutrality existed as a short-lived, government-mandated regulation from 2015 to 2018, bringing the U.S. in line with Europe and other international peers. Last December, however, the FCC voted to repeal net neutrality, citing consumer protection and the potential benefits of the free market on internet innovation. The weeks leading up to the vote spurred over 20 million public comments, highlighting the broad public interest in the topic.

The changes were enacted in June of this year, but that hasn’t killed net neutrality altogether. In May 2018, the U.S. Senate voted to reinstate net neutrality. While that alone isn’t enough to bring it back, it shows that the debate might arise again in the next congressional term. Until then, many states—including Montana, Washington, and California—have replaced the repealed mandate with their own regulations. In particular, California’s bill not only reinstates net neutrality, but it also prevents other manipulations of internet users’ access. For example, it banned zero-rating, which allows people to use select services without drawing from their data limit. The Justice Department has responded with a lawsuit, claiming that the new regulations are illegal because the FCC is the only entity that can make laws about broadband internet, an example of “interstate commerce.”

It all comes down to one major question: is the internet a right or a commodity? In our interconnected world, the internet permeates almost every aspect of life. But as the current system stands, access is mediated by a handful of private companies. As such, they are free to compete with each other to, ideally, offer better products that serve more people. But they are also free to decide that it’s too costly to lay down cables in rural towns. If a large company offers to pay ISPs a hefty sum in exchange for slowing access to their competitor’s website, the ISP is now free to do so. Nevertheless, rural communities continue laying down cables, and state legislatures continue passing replacements of net neutrality to advocate for their place in the complex web of the internet.

Aparna Nathan is a second-year graduate student in the Bioinformatics and Integrative Genomics Ph.D. program at Harvard University. You can find her on Twitter @aparnanathan.

Jovana Andrejevic is a third-year Applied Physics Ph.D. student in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University.

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7 thoughts on “From ZIP Codes to Paywalls: The internet as a new frontier of inequality

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  6. I am of the belief that though at one point, accessible internet may have been a commodity, but in the modern world it’s moving toward a right. Especially with the need for connectivity during the recent COVID-19 pandemic, it’s no surprise that rural communities are getting left behind.

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