What is Net Neutrality, Anyway?

“Net neutrality” is a buzzword these days.  To some people, though, it’s nothing more than that.  In our connected world, it’s important to know exactly what net neutrality is.  In my opinion, it’s also important to support it.

So what is net neutrality?  Simply put, net neutrality is the concept that all (legal) data on the internet is treated the same.  This was actually one of the core ideas of the internet when it was first started.  To the internet, data is data, all it does is pass it along.  It makes no different to the internet whether I’m watching YouTube or reading Six Colors, all it does it take data from those sites’ respective web servers and deliver it to my browser.  So basically, net neutrality has existed since the start of the internet.  Why would anyone want to change it?  The answer, as always, is money.

Let’s talk about some examples.  A few years back, Comcast customers were complaining that Netflix didn’t work well for them.  In response to this, Netflix paid Comcast a ton of money for Comcast to store Netflix content on Comcast’s servers.  This meant that Comcast customers ended up with a better Netflix experience.  So what’s the problem?  Netflix wasn’t happy with what they were getting from Comcast, so they paid more money and got better service.  Isn’t that just capitalism?  It is, but the problem is that it gives Comcast opportunities to extort money.  Suppose Comcast purposefully slowed down Amazon Instant Video on their network.  Now Comcast can go to Amazon and say, “Hey… you know… if you paid us some more money… maybe your content wouldn’t look so bad.”  This is technically capitalism, but then, so are monopolies.  Monopolies are illegal because someone who owns a monopoly is able to extort a lot of money from a lot of people.  In this scenario, Comcast can do the same.  People against further net neutrality legislation (like Comcast) say that current laws make it illegal to slow down someone on purpose; you can only pay more to get faster service.  This is true; Comcast can’t slow someone down if they don’t pay up.  All Comcast has to do, though, is not raise their baseline speed, and 10 years from now, it’ll be a joke.  This is why we need rules that outlaw any special treatment at all.

The other problem we have without net neutrality is a stifling of innovation.  For this example, we turn to T-Mobile.  T-Mobile recently launched a new feature where streaming music does not count against customers’ data usage.  (Full disclosure: I love this feature and use it all the time.  I’m a hypocrite, I know.)  T-Mobile included pretty much all major streaming services in this.  However, what if some new service pops up trying to make it big?  If they’re not included in T-Mobile’s deal, I probably won’t switch to them over Spotify.  This could be detrimental to anyone trying to launch a new streaming service.

So what needs to be done?  My understanding is that to really lock down net neutrality for good, Congress will have to reclassify internet service as a utility.  At that point, it will be subject the same regulation that electricity and water are.  When I first heard this idea, I laughed.  Internet service a utility?  A basic human right?  What a first world problem!  But then I started thinking: suppose you’re running a small business.  There’s really no way for you to run your business successfully without the internet, in the same way that there’s no way for you to run it without electricity.  I’m not convinced internet access is a basic human right, but I think utility fits it well for now.

So what’s being done about this?  A year ago, I would have said net neutrality was dead, since the legislation didn’t seem to be going anywhere (not that much legislation at all goes anywhere these days).  However, the FCC is now looking to potentially instate some new regulations that would reclassify the internet as a utility.  There’s also another proposition out there that wants to create some new regulations without actually reclassifying it.  This could potentially be a pivotal time for the history of the internet, and the next few weeks should be very interesting.  ••

Update 2/27/15: Yesterday, the FCC officially decided (in a 3-2 vote) to regulate the internet as a utility.  If you’re interesting in reading more check out this article from CNET.

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