The term “net neutrality” has been posted, Tweeted, Facebooked, blogged, and discussed in almost every possible news outlet. Yet if you were to ask a random set of people on the street what exactly the term means, you’d likely get a cobbled-together explanation obscured by murky metaphors.
Part of the reason for this, as is the case with lots of jargon (like “Quantitative Easing”), is its technicality, which makes it difficult to describe in your average news segment without resorting to clumsy metaphor. But the main reason is just the fact that it’s so damn boring.
I mean, look, I love technology, from its glitzy consumer-focused virtual storefronts to its seedy underbelly of weirdos and hackers. And yet, somehow, whenever I read something that mentions things like “paid prioritization” and “Title II legislation,” my eyes can’t help but go all glassy. Even when some of my tech-ier friends try to discuss it with me, it’s a topic that’s always underlined with a brand of dramatic we’re-all-doomed cynicism that I find nauseating.
“These monopolistic cable companies will literally destroy the Internet,” they’ll say, their eyes brimming with fear and paranoia. Then later, erupting in anger, they’ll slam a fist on their coffee table — laden with Coca-Coca cans, their new Apple iPhone, and a bag of Doritos — and proclaim: “Everyone’s bought and sold. I can’t stand corporations being involved in everything I do!”
But I digress. Let me stick with trying to iron out the details of net neutrality, for both my edification and yours:
What Is Net Neutrality Anyway?
Net neutrality is, at its core, the concept that every piece of information on the public Internet should be as accessible as any other. More specifically, it means that the access to this information should not be in any way stifled by your Internet service provider (ISP). This includes “bandwidth throttling,” the practice of slowing down content delivery, which several broadband providers have done in the past with cloud-based providers such as Netflix.
Net neutrality advocates insist that a free and open Internet, and a level playing field for companies large and small, is key to the growth and success of the Internet and to the emergence of new businesses like Facebook or Twitter or Amazon or BuzzFeed, or any other startup that relies on Internet traffic. And they worry that, if allowed, broadband providers would crush any new site or service that could threaten their existing or future businesses, potentially choking off services like Netflix to steer users to their own versions.
Why Net Neutrality Matters
The flow of traffic on the Internet may not sound like such a big deal, but imagine you have a favorite little site where you like to watch news and other videos. (By the way, we wholeheartedly encourage you to watch the videos on these pages.) Now, imagine you’re trying to check out that site on a brisk Tuesday morning, but it refuses to load. You scream, you curse, you throw your coffee cup against the wall in a fit of impotent fury, but nothing works. The loading bar just creeps along like the turtle resolute on defeating the hare.
Except this isn’t Aesop’s Fables. Eventually, you’re going to hit the ‘stop’ button and visit CNN, or Fox, or any other site that could pony up the premium super-fast internet fee. Ping. It loads in an instant. How likely is it that you’re going to come back to that little ol’ site after that?
Many of the most innovative products and services that today define how we interact with the Internet began as tiny startups in a garage, a dorm room, or a mother’s basement. Were paid prioritization in existence as little as ten years ago, there’s a very real chance that there would be no Facebook, no YouTube, or even no Google.
Scenarios like this are the prime argument against paid prioritization by advocacy groups like EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) and Fight for the Future. Some of those advocates may be slightly hyperbolic in the way they describe these issues, but they serve to underscore the power that ISPs have over the content they host.
So What’s the Problem?
Figuring out just how to regulate ISPs has been a long and complicated process. Back in the early days of the Internet – way back in 1996 when people used Ask Jeeves to search the web and the Domino’s Pizza Tracker was nothing more than a cheese-induced fever dream — Congress approved the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which differentiated between two legal categories of services: Telecommunications services, like telephony and fax, are considered to be “common carriers,” and subject to government regulation much like gas and electric utilities. Information services, however — social media sites, cloud services like Dropbox, and your office email, along with the broadband providers that carry those services — were largely exempted from regulation by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
What Is the FCC Doing About It?
The agency has tried to come up with rules to preserve net neutrality, but its attempts have been struck down in court. The agency is now working on new rules governing Internet service providers, and its proposals have again raised tremendous amounts of criticism. One FCC proposal included the option of “paid prioritization,” or allowing broadband providers to ask websites and content services to pay for more bandwidth, allowing end users to access these sites and services faster.
This is pretty much the exact opposite of network neutrality and, to unabashedly quote Douglas Adams, has made a lot of people very angry and has been widely considered a bad move. At the most recent count, the FCC had received 3.9 million comments on its proposed piece of legislation. The widespread protest against paid prioritization — spurred on with help from outlets like HBO’s John Oliver — crashed the comments section of the FCC’s website multiple times, ironically enough.
President Obama this week publicly called on the FCC to reclassify broadband providers as telecommunications services, not unlike like your telephone. While this seems to counter-act the guidelines that Congress set down, bear this in mind: those guidelines are almost 20 years old. When they were enacted, people still used America Online to browse the web. Print media was still thriving. We had barely scratched the surface of what the internet could do for us. I mean, hell, You’ve Got Mail hadn’t even been released yet.
Nowadays, most Americans rely on the web – not just for news, opinion, and cat videos, but for their careers, for their education and for many other facets of their daily life. The presence and demand for the internet is so endemic that the United Nations has stated several times that Internet access is a basic human right.
So, why are we still treating it like it’s the new, exciting novelty technology of 1996? Who knows — Maybe we should check Ask Jeeves?
Surely There’s Another Side…
Obama’s statement was met with an immediate backlash from cable and wireless providers, as well as certain interest groups.
Comcast, for instance, said it agreed with almost everything Obama said — almost everything. “We have publicly supported the FCC adopting new, strong Open Internet rules,” the company said. “We have stated on numerous occasions that we believe legally enforceable rules should continue to include strong transparency, no blocking, and anti-discrimination provisions. We don’t prioritize Internet traffic or have paid fast lanes, and have no plans to do so.”
The one major area of difference between the company and the president, Comcast said, was on the idea of reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service. “Doing so would harm future innovation and investment in broadband and is not necessary to put in place strong and enforceable Open Internet protections,” the company said.
That’s the main argument broadband providers and others have made against reclassification: that government control could stifle innovation and technological advancement by miring everything in red tape.
Striking a more practical note, the Telecom Industry Association claims that government involvement in broadband providers would limit investment from the private sector. Comcast’s Executive Vice President, David Cohen, echoed these sentiments, pointing at Comcast’s falling stock prices immediately following Obama’s announcement as an indication of investor nervousness.
Some also point to privacy concerns regarding government control of the pipes through which so much personal information flows. Since there have been accusations leveled at the NSA regarding alleged attempts to install monitoring software on new network hardware, there is some skepticism amongst privacy advocates as to whether the government would be able to maintain control without snooping on its citizens.
What Happens Next?
The ball is still in the FCC’s court. “The more deeply we examined the issues around the various legal options, the more it has become plain that there is more work to do,” Chairman Tom Wheeler said in a statement responding to Obama’s comments. “The reclassification and hybrid approaches before us raise substantive legal questions. We found we would need more time to examine these to ensure that whatever approach is taken, it can withstand any legal challenges it may face.”
Wheeler also noted it has been ten years since the FCC started working toward enforceable Open Internet rules. “We must take the time to get the job done correctly, once and for all,” he said, “in order to successfully protect consumers and innovators online.”
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