You've probably seen lots of stories about net neutrality lately, and like any reasonable person, you've ignored them completely. That's because "net" and "neutrality," as comedian and TV host John Oliver rightly described them, are two of the most boring words in the English language. Put them together and the combination is more yawn-inducing than two Ambien and a warm mug of milk.
But the annoying truth is that you should care about net neutrality. Net neutrality is the principle that internet service providers (ISPs) should keep their internet speeds the same for all websites — not prioritize big companies (who will pay for this perk) over smaller ones. In 2015, the Obama-era Federal Communications Commission subjected the ISPs to the same heavy regulations as phone companies to enforce thiss. Not surprisingly, the ISPs protested this. And under the Trump administration, the FCC is set to eliminate the net neutrality rules [source: Fung].
Many consumers are not happy about this reversal. Here are some of the freedoms they fear will go away if net neutrality is eliminated:
- Freedom from monopolies
- Freedom to start a business and compete on a level playing field
- Freedom of online speech
- Freedom to visit any website you want at the fastest browsing speed
We've assembled a not-boring-at-all list of the 10 reasons you should care about net neutrality. No coffee needed to read this!
You Expect the Internet to Be Free and Open
Even if you're not an electrical engineer, you have a general idea of how the internet works. It's a global network — literally a worldwide web — of interconnected computers. The modern internet was invented to be a free and open network that allows anyone with a web connection to communicate directly with any individual or computer on that network [source: World Wide Web Foundation].
Over the past 25 years, the internet has transformed the way we do just about everything. Think about the conveniences and services that wouldn't exist without the Internet:
The internet has evolved so quickly and works so well precisely because the technology behind the Internet is neutral. In other words, the physical cables, routers, switches, servers and software that run the Internet treat every byte of data equally. A streaming movie from Netflix shares the same crowded fiber optic cable as the pictures from your niece's birthday. The Internet doesn't pick favorites.
That, at its core, is what net neutrality means. And that's one of the most important reasons why you should care about it: to keep the internet as free, open and fair as possible, just as it was designed to be.
China Has a Non-Neutral Internet
If you're lucky enough to live in a country that doesn't regulate the information you access online, you probably take net neutrality for granted. You search the web unrestricted by government censors, free to choose what information to believe or discard, and what websites and online services to patronize.
- Chinese internet service providers (ISPs) block access to a long list of sites banned by the government.
- Specific search terms are red flagged; type them into Google and you'll be blocked from the search engine for 90 seconds.
- Chinese ISPs are given lists of problematic keywords and ordered to take down pages that include those words.
- The government and private companies employ 100,000 people to police the internet and snitch on dissenters.
- The government also pays people to post pro-government messages on social networks, blogs and message boards.
Proponents of net neutrality aren't arguing that the FCC's proposed rule changes will turn the U.S. into a China-like censorship state. Instead, they worry that corporations will buy influence with ISPs to disrupt access to competitors, or smother online speech that's critical of a company or its products.
Fast Lanes Already Exist
It turns out that our layman's understanding of how the internet works — a worldwide web of computers linked on a free, open network — is a bit of a fairy tale. The truth is that those fast lanes demonized by net neutrality advocates already exist. Highly successful and high-traffic web companies like Google, Facebook and Netflix already pay for direct access — inside access, in some cases — to internet service providers like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon [source: McMillan].
There are two types of fast lanes that exist today [source: McMillan]:
- Peering – Most web companies need to send their data across the broader internet backbone (the cables and datacenters operated by companies around the world) before it arrives at an ISP and is served to individual users. Wealthier companies can pay ISPs for a direct connection called peering that bypasses the internet backbone and speeds data transfers.
- Content Delivery Network – Ever wonder how Google can serve up search results so quickly? The search giant pays for the privilege to set up its own servers inside the bowels of ISPs so it can deliver the most popular searches and images even faster.
If web companies can already pay ISPs for preferential treatment, then why are net neutrality advocates making such a stink about the FCC's proposed rule change? First off, the concern is for the last mile, the connection between an ISP and a consumer's home, which has been regulated differently from the connection between a web company and an ISP [source: Nagesh]. The other issue is the monopolies enjoyed by American ISPs and their chilling effect on competition. We'll dive into that next.
Net Neutrality Calls Attention to ISP Monopolies
Comcast Corporation, America's biggest internet service provider is also the country's largest cable TV company, and — with its ownership of NBC Universal — one of the world's largest media companies [source: Kafka]. If regulators had allowed Comcast to merge with Time Warner in 2015 — the Department of Justice and the FCC gave it a thumbs down — the combined mega-corporation would have provided high-speed Internet access to 40 percent of American homes [source: Griswold].
There is genuine concern that a handful of powerful ISPs have become the gatekeepers of the Internet, picking winners and losers according to the size of their checks. For a web company to get its content to consumers, it has no choice but to go through an ISP [source: McMillan]. And considering that Comcast, Verizon and Time Warner enjoy de facto monopolies in many large cable markets across America, web companies must bow to the local king.
Even Tim Wu, who coined the phrase net neutrality, argues that the real issue isn't fast lanes, but rather increasing competition among ISPs [source: McMillan]. One way to do that would be to follow the example of the United Kingdom, where regulators require ISPs and cable companies to lease their fiber optic lines to competitors at cost [source: Cassidy]. Without that rule, it would be far too expensive for an upstart ISP to enter the market, which is exactly the reality in the U.S. today.
A Neutral Internet Promotes Competition
In its 2010 Open Internet Order, the FCC sang the virtues of net neutrality for fostering competition:
"The Internet is a level playing field. Consumers can make their own choices about what applications and services to use and are free to decide what content they want to access, create, or share with others. This openness promotes competition."
The Open Internet Order formalized three important rules to prevent anti-competitive practices by ISPs:
- Transparency - ISPs must disclose how they manage traffic on their networks
- No blocking - ISPs cannot block their customers from accessing websites, applications or streaming services owned by competitors
- No unreasonable discrimination - ISPs can only make "reasonable" adjustments to their networks to improve service, not to punish a competitor or specific type of content
But a 2014 court decision threw those regulations into question when a judge ruled that the FCC didn't have the authority to stop ISPs from discriminating against websites or charging fees to access an internet "fast lane" [source: Ammori]. To do so, the FCC would have to reclassify ISPs as a "utility" and regulate them under a more stringent set of communications rules called Title II.
And that's exactly what happened in 2015. With input from more than 4 million online commentators, the FCC under President Barack Obama decided to regulate ISPs as a Title II utility, and imposed additional reporting requirements and rules against anti-competitive practices, notably:
- No blocking - same as above
- No throttling - ISPs cannot slow down or degrade the delivery of any type of content, especially from competitors
- No paid prioritization - ISPs cannot charge websites and content providers a fee to get faster delivery on the network
Paid prioritization could create a seriously uneven playing field in which small startups are relegated to the slow lane while wealthy corporations cruise along at light speed. This is among the regulations that current FCC chairman Ajit Pai wants to abolish [source: FCC].
ISPs Have a History of Slowing or Blocking Data
Proponents of net neutrality talk about big ISPs like Comcast and Time Warner as if they were ruthless corporations that would stop at nothing to gain a competitive edge. Every ISP wants to increase market share and make its shareholders happy, but ISPs also want to please their customers ... right?
Not according to a 2014 survey called the American Consumer Satisfaction Index, in which Comcast and Time Warner customers gave their cable companies a failing grade for "high prices, poor reliability and declining customer service" [source: Aamoth].
In fact, Comcast has a history of sacrificing the quality of its customer experience in order to get more money from content providers. Starting in 2012, Comcast got in a fight with Netflix over the amount of bandwidth the streaming video site required from Comcast-owned networks. Comcast refused to upgrade its equipment to handle the increased traffic unless Netflix paid up [source: Associated Press]. The battle waged on for two years, during which Netflix service for millions of Comcast subscribers slowed to a crawl.
Since Comcast essentially owns the last-mile broadband connection to 25 million homes, Netflix had no choice but to pay for a direct peering arrangement. Verizon pulled a similar strong-arm tactic to get more money from Netflix in an earlier backroom deal [source: Kang]. These examples and others worry net neutrality advocates who fear that the FCC's proposed rules will sanction more anti-competitive behavior.
It Would Create an Internet '1 Percent'
One percent of the world's population controls almost 50 percent of the world's wealth, according to the poverty eradication nonprofit Oxfam [source: Neuman]. Advocates of net neutrality worry that loosening the rules for ISPs will result in a one-percent version of the internet.
Here's how it could happen. In 2004, internet traffic was more or less equally distributed across thousands of web companies. Just 10 years later, half of all internet traffic originated from only 30 companies [source: McMillan]. In 2017, the top three websites by daily unique visitors and page views were Google, YouTube and Facebook respectively [source: Alexa]. In terms of data, Netflix and YouTube hog more than half of all downstream traffic in North America [source: Daileda]. That means one out of every two bytes of data traveling across the internet is streaming video from Netflix or YouTube.
If the distribution of internet traffic is so out of whack now, imagine what it would be like if ISPs were given the green light to give further preferential treatment to the biggest players. Would there be any bandwidth left for the 99 percent — independent video producers, upstart social media sites, bloggers and podcasters?
Net Neutrality Protects Free Speech
This is a really important reason why you should care about net neutrality. The internet, as it exists today, is an open forum for free speech and freedom of expression. Websites publishing both popular and unpopular viewpoints are treated equally in terms of how their data gets from servers to screens.
If the FCC allows internet service providers (ISPs) to charge extra money for access to internet last-mile fast lanes, the playing field of free speech is no longer equal. Those with the money to pay for special treatment could broadcast their opinions more quickly and more smoothly than their opponents. Those without as many resources — activists, artists and political outsiders — could be relegated to the internet slow lane [source: van Schewick].
If you had to choose between watching a sharp full-screen HD video broadcast or a clunking, buffering, blurry clip, which would you pick?
Net Neutrality Has Political Implications
It should come as no surprise to anyone that Democrats and Republicans square off on opposite sides of the net neutrality debate.
As a whole, Democratic lawmakers are against the proposed changes to FCC regulations that would allow ISPs to charge for VIP fast-lane treatment on their broadband networks. "Without net neutrality, the internet as we know it ends," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D Oregon, in July 2017. "It's just that simple" [source: Romm]. Republicans, too, are fighting in the name of innovation and fair play. Their argument is that unnecessary government regulations — in this case, the Obama administration's ban on fast lanes — are the greatest hindrance to innovation. If a company engages in anti-competitive practices, some Republican lawmakers argue, then the government can prosecute them using existing antitrust laws [source: Nagesh]. According to their stance, new regulations discourage new ideas, not protect them.
It's Decision Time
The final and most important reason to care about net neutrality right now is that it's still up for debate.
On April 27, 2017, FCC chairman Ajit Pai released proposed legislation that would roll back the Obama-era rules protecting net neutrality. Pai has called for a return to the "light touch" regulation of ISPs that relieves internet providers from the "burdensome" reporting requirements and stifling rules of Title II [source: FCC].
The FCC will vote on the rules changes on December 14, and since three of the five members of commission's voting board are Republicans, the rollback of net neutrality protections is expected to pass.
Tens of millions of Americans have taken to the FCC website to comment on the legislation, but it's unclear whether their voice will be heard over the megaphone of corporate donors. If we've convinced you to care about net neutrality, speak your mind and post a consumer comment to the FCC.
Our digital world has given us a ton of new words and phrases to learn. Get ready to learn yet another one, deep linking, at HowStuffWorks.
Author's Note: 10 Reasons You Should Care About Net Neutrality
Having lived through the Enron fiasco and the Wall Street shenanigans leading to the global financial collapse, I am extremely wary of the motives of corporate America. That said, I wonder if the fears expressed by net neutrality advocates — that the FCC is sanctioning a two-tier system that will "break" the Internet — aren't a little overblown.
The current administration is hellbent on rolling back Obama-era regulations in multiple industries. Although ISPs under the new rules wouldn't be required by law not to engage in practices like blocking and throttling, they would still be required to report their actions. My hope is that an active and free press will pore over those filings and expose anticompetitive practices. If the FTC won't take action, it'll be up to us, the consumers to vote with our wallets and punish ISPs for bad practices.
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