It might seem like just another buzz phrase, but net neutrality isn’t a passing fad like planking or Sharknado. It’s far more important to the future of the internet than anything Apple or Google is working on, and if you think it doesn’t have anything to do with you, think again. No matter what you use the internet for, the fight over net neutrality threaten to affect it, from binge-watching Breaking Bad right down to the reading of this article. So if you don’t quite understand what it is, get up to speed:
What is it?
Once you break down all the court rulings and legalese, net neutrality is actually based on a very simple notion: that everything transmitted over the internet is of equal importance. That means no governing body or service provider has the right to censor or slow down your access to whatever you want to watch, view or read online. It was coined by Columbia law professor Tim Wu in his 2003 Journal of Telecommunications and High Technology Law paper, “Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination.” It is the foundation of the so-called open internet, but it didn’t start the fight—it merely gave it a name.
Comcast or Verizon could suddenly decide to block YouTube or throttle speeds on popular sites. It’s not without precedent.
So who’s fighting?
Anyone who conducts business online—which is pretty much everyone these days—has a horse in this race. On one side are internet service providers such as Verizon, Comcast and AT&T and on the other are content producers and purveyors like Yahoo, eBay and Amazon. The battle is mainly being played out in U.S. courtrooms, but they’re not technically fighting each other; as the enforcer of net neutrality, the Federal Communications Commission holds the keys to the internet, and will ultimately have the final say.
What is everyone fighting about?
Here’s where things start to get confusing. At the center of the battle is freedom; in a nutshell, proponents of net neutrality want an internet free from tolls and censorship, and opponents want an internet free from regulation. Back in 2002 (when the web was a far different place), the FCC ruled that broadband was an information service and thus providers were not subject to the same regulations as “common carriers,” marking a clear distinction between it and phone lines (despite the face that most companies provided both services).
As the internet grew, so did the size and strength of the fastest access providers, leading the FCC to propose a set of rules in 2010, which sought to ensure transparency and protect against content blocking and discrimination. While the rules may seem benign, ISPs immediately began to fight them on principle, arguing that their very existence contradicted the FCC’s initial non-regulatory stance. Verizon sued and won a landmark decision earlier this year, successfully striking down enforcement of the rules and sending the FCC back to the drawing board.
We pay some of the highest prices for broadband on the planet, and without neutrality rules in place, things could get a whole lot worse.
What exactly does all that mean?
Like most contentious, hard-fought battles, it’s all about money and control. As consumers, we expect that when we pay a monthly fee for broadband access, there won’t be any restrictions on what we can use it for. For the most part, that’s pretty much the way it is, but without any regulations on the books, Comcast or Verizon could suddenly decide to block YouTube or throttle speeds on popular sites. It might sound far-fetched, but it’s not without precedent; Comcast and Verizon have already signed traffic deals with Netflix after the former was accused of slowing down speeds of the all-you-can-stream service. Consequently, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has proposed a new set of rules that included a so-called “fast lane,” seemingly designed to allow this very practice, a slippery slope toward making things somewhat less than neutral.
What’s it gonna cost me?
We already pay some of the highest prices for broadband on the planet, and without neutrality rules in place, things could get a whole lot worse. As more providers sign deals with ISPs to assure prompt delivery of their content, those costs will eventually be passed on to to consumers (starting with Netflix, which is poised to raise rates for new members). There’s also the fear that ISPs could eventually implement a tiered plan similar to cable television that charges users more for “premium” sites like Hulu, ESPN or even Google.
Is there anything I can do?
If you want to fight for net neutrality, you can put good old-fashioned democracy to work by contacting your local representative, the FCC at firstname.lastname@example.org or 888-255-5322, or Wheeler directly at email@example.com. Alternatively, you can join the movement by signing the White House petition to “Restore Net Neutrality By Directing the FCC to Classify Internet Providers as ‘Common Carriers.'”