The best way to think of net neutrality is to think about the telephone. When you pick up your telephone, you can call whomever you want, say whatever you want to say, and your telephone company can’t regulate any of it. They can’t choose to connect your neighbors’ calls faster than yours. They can’t disconnect your call if they decide you’ve spent too much time chattering over the phone line.
The Internet has always been approached in a similar fashion. Your speeds depend on the quality of your service. Dial-up connections using copper cables are not going to move as fast as fiber networks, but once you’re on the Internet, the Google website should be as readily available as Yahoo, Netflix as available as Hulu, etc.
Net neutrality seeks to maintain the open nature of the Internet. Supporters want to keep the environment decentralized. This makes it possible for people and companies to conduct business without interference from a third party, unlike countries like North Korea where the Internet is no more than an Intranet closely censored by its government.
But, it’s more than just an open Internet. There are cable companies that want the ability to charge content providers like Netflix more to stream movies. Now, you may or may not be a Netflix subscriber, but we’re talking about cable providers appointing themselves gatekeepers of what is and is not easily accessible. A cable provider could severely hinder or block access to a competitor’s website. Ten years ago that would have not mattered, but these days we see a small landscape of mega corporations with vast interests across print, web, music, and video content. Think of Comcast prioritizing NBC over other networks. Can you imagine a world where a handful of companies can control what you can access and hike prices up to access it?
Now, on the other side of the aisle, opponents of net neutrality see nothing wrong with a tiered service. Bandwidth hogs should pay more to move their packets of data faster. The revenue generated from these fees can help pay to expand broadband access to underserved consumers.
Besides, the Internet has already proven to be anything but neutral since larger companies pay for more servers and high-bandwidth services. Activity like file transfers are more likely to take priority over real-time communication. Some networks are not prepared to handle the surge from popular streaming services, which could deteriorate quality of service for all customers on that network.
Think of it this way, Google and Skype can clog up the pipes for free calls we spent billions to build. Why shouldn’t they pay their fair share to maintain these pipes?
Pros and cons aside, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) made a mistake when it classified Internet service providers as information services instead of telecommunication services. That means the FCC cannot keep AT&T, Verizon and others from prioritizing some content providers over others.
Okay, so why should you care?
First, if content providers like Netflix have to pay more to move their data, guess who’s going to pick up the bill? Here’s a hint, it’s not going to be Netflix! The same could be true of Amazon, Spotify and other services you rely on for multimedia content.
Further, you’re likely to experience changes in the quality of service. The United States already pays among the highest bills for pathetically slow Internet speeds. A tiered system sounds good on the surface, but how much is too much for less than adequate Internet speeds?
Finally, it’s the principle of the matter! We should not have gatekeepers dictating what websites and services can reach customers according to the highest bidder or business agendas. They should not slow down or block content providers they do not like. We should care because it will impact the open access to whatever information you want from whatever source you desire.
But, over to you. What are your thoughts on the debate? Do you think the Internet ought to continue being the open decentralized system it’s always been, or do you feel times have changed and bandwidth hogs should pay for their share of traffic congestion? It’s an issue more of us should closely follow. It’s a topic being debated in the courts, in the news, and pretty soon it’s going to hit your bill.