Does Net Neutrality Stand a Chance in a Pandemic?




We’re living through odd times.

Non-essential workers are now working from home, unemployment is projected to hit 32%, Disneyland is empty, and no one knows when this uncertainty will end.

This shift in human behavior is having some interesting consequences. Mountain lions are roaming the streets, there’s been a significant reduction in air pollution, and internet usage is peaking.

The massive spike in online traffic is causing slow download times, streaming issues, and frequent Zoom freezeframes.

This widespread slowdown made us think about net neutrality. This is already a hotly debated topic, but throw in a pandemic and suddenly we’ve got a new perspective.

In an unprecedented time, when bandwidth resources are finite, is it ever acceptable to prioritize one resource over another?

This question fascinated our team, so we decided to open it up for debate.

What We Asked

We began asking our team whether they were in favor of net neutrality. It was a unanimous “yes.”

We then asked them this:

After they responded with their yeses or nos, we asked them to defend their answer, and here’s what they had to say, starting with the folks who said, yes, net neutrality may be worth temporarily suspending.

Yes, Net Neutrality Should Be Suspended During Emergencies

Even if you disagree, it’s not difficult to understand why, hypothetically, someone would be okay with suspending net neutrality in the face of a disaster. The common reasons stated focused on one common theme: protecting lives. Here are some of the exact responses:

“I think that as with just about any industry, the government should have the right to step in and regulate if it means protecting the lives of its citizens. Just like there are rules around free speech (e.g., yelling “fire” in a crowded theater), I believe that it is ok to have guidelines around net neutrality as long as they serve a specific purpose and are clearly laid out.” – Aaron, software developer

“I feel it would be fair during emergency situations (pandemics) to temporarily provide extra resources (internet) to essential industries (healthcare) that ultimately help the greater good. The government already does this with other resources during these hard times. If, overall, it helps society settle and recover from an emergency, I don’t see an issue with it.” – Tanner, software developer

Another thing to consider, which was brought up by a senior engineer was that “As long as the ‘different crisis laws’ are known and voted on, it would be alright.”

As far as knowing and voting, that brings up another slew of issues like voter turnout, oppression, and a general misunderstanding of how advanced technology works. Making this truly democratic would be easier said than done.

However, leaving it to the administration might have worse outcomes, depending on what leaders deem “essential.” One potential solution to this was recorded:

“IF there was careful consideration of priority channels, with regular review by a balanced commission, then emergency and even non-emergency essential communication should be prioritized and expanded.” – Vince, software developer

This caveat was a major point from some team members that voted, “no.”

No, Net Neutrality Should Not Be Suspended (Political)

Those who wanted to keep net neutrality regardless of pandemics had several worthy reasons why.

Here’s what two people had to say:

“I worry that the value systems of the current administration would affect what services are favored during an emergency. Websites like Planned Parenthood (just as an example) may not be favored in an emergency, even though they offer valuable healthcare services.” – Anonymous

“I think it not only sets a bad precedent but would end up prioritizing certain information sources over others. While this is not inherently bad, depending on who is choosing those sources and why, it could end up spreading misinformation/ a single viewpoint on not only the pandemic but the political sphere of our nation.” – Dylan, software developer

No, Net Neutrality Should Not Be Suspended (Companies Need to Do Better)

One of our responders mentioned that, when it comes down to it, the services need to step up their game. For example, Zoom, who is battling slow streaming speeds simply does not have the bandwidth or server capacity to handle the traffic.

“The issue is that essential services aren’t scaling well to meet increased demand. Suspending net neutrality won’t fix that. Asking Amazon Web Services et al. to provide more hosting might help, but the only way for web services to meet increased demand is to make them scalable in the first place. That’s on developers to build and project managers to prioritize.” – Chris, software developers

A Possible Third Option

The in-between solution is two-fold. First, we request, not mandate, that companies take the initiative to slow down certain online avenues. For example, Italy requested that Netflix temporarily limit views to standard definition (as opposed to HD) which they did.

The other part of the problem is that “ISPs were paid by the government to set up their initial infrastructure. They’re paid by consumers. They’re paid by content providers. But they continue to pocket the money instead of improving the infrastructure.

“Therefore, the idea of QoS levels for the whole internet seems like an overly complicated solution when what ISPs should do is: Pony up the money to improve their infrastructure and take advantage of peering solutions. They will help everyone rather than trying to extort extra money out of the deal.” – Anonymous

So if private, non-essential companies slow themselves down voluntarily plus ISPs improve their infrastructure, we could avoid another net neutrality debate.

However, in this instance, where a pandemic went from “normal” to “shelter in place” within days, half of this solution isn’t possible. The best we can do is put the pressure on companies to do what they can, and then pressure government administrations to force ISPs to have better emergency planning. As our society (and essential healthcare systems) rely more and more on internet accessibility, this might be the only truly fair and democratic solution.

We will learn a lot about internet usage from this COVID-19 pandemic. Maybe one positive outcome will be the improvement of bandwidth and accessibility.

As the internet gets placed under more strain in the coming months, we’ll have to wait and find out.