Net Neutrality: What Is It? Who Benefits? Why Should You Care?
What Is Net Neutrality?
One of the most comprehensive definitions of Net Neutrality comes from Wikipedia, which explains: "The principle (of Net Neutrality) is that internet service providers (ISPs) treat all data on the internet the same, and not discriminate or charge differently by user, content, website, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or method of communication." That's a lot to take in, so let's break it down.
Internet service providers are simply the companies you pay each month for access to the internet (i.e. Charter, Time Warner, Comcast, AT&T, etc.). The next part of the definition deals with how those ISPs treat your data. In a world of net neutrality, that means Charter can’t charge you more to access specific websites like Facebook or Netflix.
On its face, treating all data the same and not being able to discriminate based on the above-mentioned criteria sounds good. However, as with most things, there is more to this issue than meets the eye.
The Argument FOR Net Neutrality
The term “network neutrality” was coined by a Columbia University law professor, Tim Wu, in a 2003 paper about online discrimination. Comcast, AT&T, and other broadband providers were banning home internet users from accessing virtual private networks (VPNs) or even from using Wi-Fi routers. Wu worried that the tendency of the broadband providers to restrict new technologies would discourage companies from developing innovative new products and web services. The next ten years saw the Bush and Obama administration take steps to ensure anti-discrimination rules were in place, culminating in the FCC’s Open Internet Order in 2015. This order reclassified internet access as a public utility, a huge win for those in favor of net neutrality.
The arguments for net neutrality basically boil down to the belief that the internet service providers have a natural monopoly on internet access. They claim the high up-front cost of infrastructure required for internet access creates impossibly high barriers to entry for new companies who would like to enter the market. ISPs, who already have that infrastructure in place, can then begin to look a lot like a monopolies.
Proponents of net neutrality also often tend to be skeptical of the ability of ISPs to effectively self regulate. They argue the largest internet companies (Facebook, Google, Netflix, etc.) could pay ISPs to prioritize traffic to those sites. This could lead to the dreaded “fast lanes” and “slow lanes” you’ve probably heard of in regards to net neutrality.
Ultimately, those in favor of net neutrality believe the company that connects you to the internet should not have a say in what you do or see on the internet.
If you’re interested in learning more about this perspective, HBO’s John Oliver takes a deep dive into the topic back in 2014 (before the FCC passed the Open Internet Order) that you can watch here.
He even put out a second video preceding the partial repeal of the Order by the new administration’s FCC chair, Ajit Pai.
The Argument AGAINST Net Neutrality
When the Open Internet Order passed in 2015, it came with quite a bit of criticism from the ISPs as well as those on the political right who favor laissez-faire capitalism. So when the new administration was sworn into office in 2017, the Open Internet Order came under fire from the FCC. On December 14, 2017, the FCC voted to partially repeal the Open Internet Order, removing the classification of internet access as a public utility.
Arguments against net neutrality once again focus on whether or not ISPs have a natural monopoly on internet access. They assert that roughly 60% American households have a choice of between three or more wired providers, according to the FCC’s own data. When consumers have a choice of provider, they shouldn’t be so heavily regulated because the invisible hand of the free market will prevent ISPs from mistreating consumers.
Critics of net neutrality tend to be those who simply don’t want government meddling in private industry. By forcing ISPs to treat all traffic the same, network owners would have very little incentive to improve on the services they currently offer. They would see safe choices as a positive, not as stagnation. Another concern is that regulation would discourage investment in network infrastructure. For example, Google has built new fiber optic networks which reach speeds as high as one gigabit per second — 50 times faster than typical networks today. However, these new fiber optic networks are often very expensive to build. So if net neutrality rules make networks less profitable, the pace of investment could slow dramatically.
Those against net neutrality believe that giving ISPs the freedom to compete ultimately leads to lower prices and a better end product for the end users. More flexibility for ISPs will in turn increase investment, innovation, and job creation.
How Will The Ultimate Decision Impact Me?
While no one knows for sure how this will turn out, the ultimate decision will likely not have a drastic impact on you either way. If the Open Internet Order is reinstated, there will be zero discrimination in the what you do online. You will have access to the same content at the same speed regardless of whether you’re browsing Facebook or reading an article on the blog of a marketing company in Knoxville, TN. If the partial repeal (or a full repeal) goes into effect, websites or consumers could have the option of paying a premium to fast-track data from a particular site. So you may have to pay a bit more, but you’d hopefully be getting a better service.
For smaller businesses, repeal of net neutrality could put many in danger of paying a premium for internet services that would hinder growth and the development of new technology. Larger corporations could afford to eat the cost of the best internet service available, leaving smaller companies unable to effectively compete.
Explaining net neutrality and its side effects is an almost impossibly large task, and you can’t tackle everything in a short blog post. Additionally, the debate around net neutrality has become highly politicized, and each side tends to go back into their echo chambers where only one side of the argument is heard. The best course of action moving forward is to take the time to educate yourself on the implications of both arguments. This way, you’ll have a more thorough understanding of the results, regardless of what the FCC ultimately decides upon