What Is Net Neutrality And Why It Matters To You

open internet 2
The net neutrality debate is hard upon us, but not everyone understands what's at stake. Most tech-savvy folks understand the issues and have a thoughtful position based on their understanding of the technology and how it's used. But some have no position, mainly because they simply don't follow the tech press on a daily basis. This may be especially true when we're speaking of folks who are somewhat older or younger, or who simply don't have a tech background. The following is provided mostly as a resource for those folks.

We have always had an "open Internet." In the old days (i.e., the early 2000s), we thought of the Web as an "information superhighway," and that was an apt analogy: the Internet was a digital freeway of sorts, with no toll roads to disrupt our digital travels. There's never really been a cop on the beat, someone watching to see what you were viewing. Parental controls aside, there's never been an authority to tell you what you could or could not see online, nor has there been anyone in charge of an Internet tollbooth to tell you that one kind of viewing will cost you more than another kind. This "net neutrality" was codified as a recently added part of the amended 1996 Telecommunications Act, and it stipulates that providers (and governments) must treat all data on the Internet the same; providers are not allowed to discriminate by charging differently by user, content, website, or application.

But that could soon change.

ajit pai
Ajit V. Pai, head of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission. The Commission
will vote on December 14th to dismantle net neutrality.

Ajit V. Pai, the current Chairman of the FCC, is planning to eliminate existing net neutrality laws. If that dismantling is successful, ISPs (Internet Service Providers) will be able to block, slow down, or charge more for specific websites and specific types of online content. The FCC will vote on the issue on December 14th of this year.

In a sense, you may already pay for tiered service, especially with a wireless (i.e., mobile phone) plan. You pay a fee to your ISP and in return you get access to a certain amount of data and certain download and upload speeds; but you pay one price for all of your access. If net neutrality goes away, providers (usually cable companies) could instead deliver access packages: you might pay one rate for email, and a higher rate for services that tend to use more bandwidth, such as Web surfing or streaming videos. Instead of using your allowable bandwidth as you see fit, your ISP could charge you more for some services than for others, or it could give precedence to services that pay to have their access prioritized.

At the same time, larger Web-based companies such as Google and Facebook won't be hurt if net neutrality goes away. In the first place, those companies typically interface with tier 1 ISPs directly; they connect to the Internet via broad bandwidth backbones in peer-sharing agreements that allow them unfettered access. Secondly, large companies such as these can afford to prioritize their access if they wanted to; it's the smaller companies and new startups that could be hurt the most.
nsfnet map
Image Courtesy Creative Commons

A Look Back

Above is a visual representation of the Internet backbone in 1992. There were a dozen or so websites at the time; now there are well over a billion.

Of course, ISPs need not charge you more for a specific type of viewing; instead, they can simply throttle, or slow down, that access. You might get your standard data allowance, but access to that data might slow down or speed up, based on how you're using the Internet at that moment. Of course, a throttled connection to Netflix or YouTube is nearly as useless as no connection at all, since the video you're watching would stutter, stop, and buffer every few seconds.

Basically, getting rid of net neutrality could result in a form of "data discrimination" in which your service provider determines what you're allowed to view.

Not surprisingly, ISPs and cable companies (often one and the same) support the dismantling of net neutrality. They argue that service tiers (i.e., multiple packages for different types of service) would result in increased profits, which would allow them to continue to invest in infrastructure and provide better service. They also argue that consumers would benefit by being able to purchase à la carte options, since not everyone uses the Internet for video, email, and Web surfing. In the end, those in favor of removing net neutrality feel that the market will sort out who is willing to pay what, and the FTC (not the FCC) will be present to safeguard consumers when necessary. Finally, opponents of net neutrality argue that some classes of communications really should be given priority (say, an emergency alert of some sort) over other types of communication (say, an illegal torrent download), and right now there's no mechanism that allows this; their argument is that net neutrality requires treating all customers (and all data streams) the same, even if they are not in fact the same.

Supporters of net neutrality argue that we have no guarantee that increased profits would in fact be used to improve service, and note also that providers should not have the right to degrade services to specific users, based on what they happen to be doing on-line. If net neutrality disappears, innovative small businesses could be stifled, because they can't afford the tier 1 peering agreements, nor can they afford to pay to have their application or data stream prioritized. Allowing any form of prioritization gives larger companies an advantage and potentially hurts consumers.

old amazon
Image courtesy of the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.

Above is what the fledgling Amazon site looked in 1995. It was innovative for its time, but much of that innovation could have been stifled by the FCC’s planned changes to net neutrality.

The bottom line is that, without net neutrality, you will no longer be in control of your Internet experience, and providers would be free to decide who gets priority service and under what conditions. And you can rest assured that the providers will most likely prioritize themselves and those corporations that contribute the most to their coffers. In effect, the elimination of net neutrality amounts to a form of corporate giveaway that favors large existing companies at the expense of end-users (that's you and I) and small companies or new, innovative startups.

Make Your Voices Heard

So, what can you do about it? Lobby your Congressional representatives. That's what the cable companies have done, so why not do it yourself? You can contact your representatives and senators here. You can also comment directly to the FCC here. Let them know how you feel, and make sure they know that, while most large corporations may feel otherwise, most people favor net neutrality.

In addition, check out these other resources:


Net neutrality (Wikipedia article)




And since you're reading HotHardware, you're probably more tech-savvy than most and have had people asking you about net neutrality -- share this post with them. Help everyone understand the situation and form an opinion. Broadband and the Internet are integral parts of most people's lives and the quality and type of service we're all used to could drastically change after December 14.

(Top Image Source: Backbone Campaign/flickr)