If you’re reading this in the US, that means you have experienced the open flow of online information made possible by Net Neutrality, a regulation that prevents internet service providers (ISPs) from restricting the flow of data from websites.
But if the head of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has his way, Net Neutrality will end today. It’s a drastic change to how people access information online and it means using the internet may become an even more expensive proposition for the country’s poorest citizens.
Net Neutrality supporters say the current rules ensure that ISPs don’t accelerate data from websites that financially benefit them — like media sites the ISPs own — and slow the delivery of competitor sites — like websites their rivals own. They may charge users more to get the sort of unrestricted access they are accustomed to, a move that that could price out the poor.
"Who's being affected by this? It's poor people, people of color," Detroit activist Nyasia Valdez told Al Jazeera. "It would be so devastating and further exacerbate the inequality that's already there."
Even with Net Neutrality, digital disparities continue to reflect differences in wealth and income level, with poorer people less likely to have online access. For example, 40% of Detroit residents lack internet access in their home and 40% live below the poverty line.
Nationwide, at least 23% of Americans who earn less than $30,000/year don’t use the internet, though other organizations say that percentage is much higher. The main reason is cost, according to EveryoneOn, an organization that helps low-income Americans get online access.
Worldwide 21% of kids lack access to the internet, according to the UN’s 2017 State of the World’s Children report.
This has led to a phenomenon known as the “digital divide,” where those who have more money have better access to the internet and can therefore capitalize on its opportunities for education, communication, and wealth enhancement, while those who don’t have money can’t.
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The FCC commissioner Ajit Pai said he plans to end Net Neutrality in an effort to deregulate corporations, but others consider internet access a human right. They say the move will prevent kids from getting an equal education, families from accessing quality healthcare and housing, and adults from researching and applying for jobs.
“If net neutrality goes out the window, we lose the choice about what they’re sending down the pipeline to us,” Michelle Conrow, a resident of a rural town in Washington, told The Guardian. “Are we going to end up with the internet for everybody just like these services that seem so obvious now? I worry we won’t.”