Everyone has the "tech guy/gal" in their family or group of friends that they refer to when they hear something on television or read an article about a computer-related topic, and want to understand it better. Apparently, in my social circle, I am the go-to guy for these inquiries and so when the topic of net neutrality became a hot-button issue, I was asked: "What is net neutrality and why should I care?"
So, after answering the question of what net neutrality is, and whether or not we should start a popular revolt against the government in order to get it reinstated for more than a few folks - I decided to answer it more holistically on my blog for all the world to read. So without further ado, here goes...
What is Net Neutrality?
Net Neutrality is this idea that internet service providers, you know - those guys you pay to get you on the web, should treat all content on the web the same. By content, I mean the services you use and the websites you visit every day via your computer, phone, tablet, etc. With Net Neutrality rules in place, providers cannot block, slow down, or charge additional money for specific websites or online content. Pulled this bit, unashamedly, from the Net Neutrality Wikipedia page.
Why would an Internet Service Provider (ISP) want to block, slow down, or charge additional money for certain content?
Good question, me! You see, many of the ISPs that exist in the world today are also content providers, i.e. they own television channels, video streaming services, own radio stations, large online web services, and search providers (monopoly, anyone?). If they can block their customers' ability to see their competitors services online, then they can double down on the money they make off of you. Or, they can allow you to use those services and charge you a higher price to access them.
I'm not sure I understand, I need an example.
That's okay, it's kind of a complex topic. Let's say you own a company, which we'll just call "Netflix". Your company, Netflix, streams movies and shows to customers for a monthly fee over the Internet. You are doing well with your video streaming service and get a bunch of customers.
Enter another company, an ISP we'll just call "Comcast" - you know, for fun. Let's say they have a rival streaming service called "Xfinity" (man I'm good at coming up with completely random, certainly not real, company and product names!). Let's say they also offer cable television, you know, just for kicks.
Now, under Net Neutrality rules Comcast has to allow their customers to use whatever streaming service they want, and can't punish them for their choice to use Netflix. In a world with neutrality, Comcast provides their Internet service as a kind of utility, like electricity. Comcast can't tell you what websites you can visit, just like your electric company doesn't tell you what devices you can plug into your outlets at home. Thus, customers are able to use Netflix and visit other websites unmolested.
Now, let's look at that scenario in a world without net neutrality. Comcast now has a lot of power, they can now dictate what you can do online. Say goodbye to customers of your online streaming company, Netflix, on Comcast - they now get the choice of Xfinity, Comcast cable, or bust. And you have little recourse, short of starting your own ISP - or you pay Comcast for the privilege of having them allow their customers to use your service, which totally didn't happen once before (sarcasm).
There are a bunch of other problems, many of which I don't have the time to document here - but I think that this problem alone is egregious enough for us, the consumers and not-Comcasts of the world to be angry at the idea of losing net neutrality. It puts too much power in the hands of ISPs, especially in a world where most of the nation doesn't even have a choice as to what internet service provider they use - as there is only one company in their area offering the service.
Why Is This Coming Up Now?
Well, guys and gals, this is the both the easiest and hardest part of this whole mess to explain. It all started this time because the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) got a new Chairman, named Ajit Pai - a Donald Trump appointee. Ajit, our good friend Ajit (once again, sarcasm), decided that Net Neutrality was a bad idea and decided it was time to get repeal the rule of neutrality that the FCC put in place in 2015.
Mr. Pai believes that Internet Service Providers will do a better job of governing themselves than any government officials could, which on its face doesn't sound so bad. He argues that there was no neutrality rule in place before 2015 and that no ISP abused its power calling it a "solution looking for a problem", so there doesn't need to be a rule in place now. The problem is, Ajit is wrong and that things were not fine, and ISPs did abuse their power.
Ajit couldn't come up with one example when interviewed on Fox News, so I decided to spend five minutes to see if I could find one. I found three which I've included below with a short explanation and link:
- That time Comcast charged Netflix an undisclosed amount to ensure customer's using the service didn't have their connections slowed while using it.
- That time Comcast blocked/slowed users of the BitTorrent service.
- That time an ISP blocked Vonage (a phone service that uses the Internet vs the phone line), because they offer phone service).
- Oh yeah, and all those other times.
I guess that's what a solution looking for a problem looks like. Of course, I could see how it could be difficult to see the problems since these aforementioned issues arose before the Net Neutrality rule was put into place in 2015 (funny how that works, huh). So, perhaps, the new problems arising now will help refresh his memory.
Ultimately, this is a discussion about where power lies. Does it reside in the hands of corporate interests, who want to make your Internet service look even more like cable TV: "I'm sorry, you don't have the package that includes Google, you'll have to pay more for that - but why not try our own search engine, it will search all of our Comcast-approved websites and for only $1 per search query!" Or, will power rest in the hands of the consumer to make decisions about what they want to do online, and not be penalized for choosing to use services and visit websites that aren't owned by your ISP.
The world I would like to live in is one in which an internet connection is treated as a utility, and free from a pricing structure and other games that the ISP could potentially play to milk money from their customers. Sure, cable companies might not be happy. But consumers will thank you for letting them access the content they want, and small businesses will thank you for ensuring they don't have to pay various ISPs to be able to use the Internet effectively. Not to mention all the nonprofit, and just-for-fun websites that exist on the Internet - forcing them to pay in order to avoid being throttled or blocked is just wrong.
The Internet is, unarguably, the most amazing communications tool humans have ever created. To turn it into an exclusively corporate-controlled network seems the greatest affront to the spirit of the Internet that I can imagine. Let ideas flow freely, and put in place whatever is necessary to ensure that the web can remain a place where people connect, innovate, and learn - not simply consume under some insane pay-to-play model. We owe our innovative startups that have grown into amazing companies to a time in which the network consumers use to access the world wide web was not weaponized, in 2015 formal rules were put in place to ensure that would remain the case. Now, we face a time when the government is essentially giving providers the green light to do whatever they want. Now is the time to fight this, and ensure an open Internet.
Email your congressperson, call them, share this blog post (shameless plug), or yell and scream online, and for godssake vote. It is up to us to protect the Internet, to protect free speech, and protect ourselves from a digital corporatocracy. We're all that's left to defend the Internet, lest we end up with THIS.