Net neutrality was one of the original basic concepts when the Internet was invented so that people could access information equally from a free and open world wide web, without any discrimination. Basically, it means keeping the Internet a fair and level playing field for everyone. Net neutrality ensures that no one piece of information takes priority over another.
A simple example of this is if you can imagine a huge corporation like AT&T. Now imagine AT&T’s website in comparison to something like your local Community College’s website. With net neutrality, both websites pay their monthly fee to their network providers, and both websites would use the same pathway to get information to you without any shortcuts or roadblocks. But, without net neutrality, a company like AT&T could actually prioritize their information by making it much faster to access than the information from the College.
Now imagine that AT&T wants to promote something that is in direct conflict with the information found on the Community College’s website. Without any kind of neutral rules in place, AT&T could set up major roadblocks for the College, making their website so slow that people would just stop using it. Another problem is that AT&T is also a provider. So, what would happen if the provider decided to completely ban content that conflicts with their own beliefs, or with something that they just happen to be promoting? Or if they wanted to block or ban their competitors? That leaves me and you in the middle, and at the mercy of AT&T, or whoever, to determine what we can see online.
Here is a short video that further explains exactly what net neutrality is….
Why is there so much talk about this now?
Most people access their high-speed Internet from one of just a handful of telecommunication companies like AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, Charter, or Time Warner. When you send or receive information over the Internet, you depend on these big companies to deliver your data from one point to another, without analyzing or changing the information in any way. The FCC used to have protections and laws in place to ensure this.
But in January of this year, a federal court ruled that the FCC was overstepping. Following this ruling, the FCC started leaning more toward allowing Internet service providers to charge websites and content providers more money for faster service. This of course, would completely break the concept of net neutrality.
Is this a real threat? Or is this all just a theory of what could happen?
Actually, contrary to what you may have heard, this is no theory. There have already been cases of abuse by Internet providers. Providers already have both the incentive and the ability to interfere with what you see on the Internet. And the fact that these abuses are already happening indicates a strong need for regulation.
According to the ACLU, there have already been numerous problems. Here are a few examples we’ve already seen….
AT&T’s jamming of a rock star’s political protest. During an August 2007 performance by the rock group Pearl Jam in Chicago, AT&T censored words from lead singer Eddie Vedder’s performance. The ISP, which was responsible for streaming the concert, shut off the sound as Vedder sang, “George Bush, leave this world alone” and “George Bush find yourself another home.” By doing so, AT&T, the self-advertised presenting sponsor of the concert series, denied viewers the complete exclusive coverage they were promised. Although Vedder’s words contained no profanity, an AT&T spokesperson claimed that the words were censored to prevent youth visiting the website from being exposed to “excessive profanity.” AT&T then blamed the censorship on an external Website contractor hired to screen the performance, calling it a mistake and pledging to restore the unedited version of Vedder’s appearance online.
Verizon Wireless’s censorship of NARAL Pro-Choice America. In late 2007, Verizon Wireless cut off access to a text-messaging program by the pro-abortion-rights group NARAL that the group used to send messages to its supporters. Verizon stated it would not service programs from any group “that seeks to promote an agenda or distribute content that, in its discretion, may be seen as controversial or unsavory to any of our users.” Verizon Wireless reversed its censorship of NARAL only after widespread public outrage.
Comcast’s throttling of online file-sharing through BitTorrent. In 2007, Comcast, the nation’s largest cable TV operator and second largest ISP, discriminated against an entire class of online activities in 2007 by using deep packet inspection to block file transfers from customers using popular peer-to-peer networks such as BitTorrent, eDonkey, and Gnutella. Comcast’s actions, which were confirmed in nationwide tests conducted by the Associated Press, were unrelated to network congestion, since the blocking took place at times when the network was not congested. Comcast blocked applications that are often used to trade videos — pirated content but also much legitimate content. Critics noted that Comcast hopes to sell online video itself. The FCC subsequently took action against Comcast for this abuse; Comcast stopped the throttling but also challenged the order in court and won, leading to a crisis in enforcement of network neutrality.
How could this affect me?
There are several ways that this could affect you. Here are just a few….
For starters this will greatly affect your diversity of content. Without net neutrality, your provider could promote their own web content and services, all while systematically excluding their competitors. It would also really hinder innovation. The next big Facebook or Google would never get a chance because they’d be muscled out by the big corporations running the web.
Discrimination is another problem. Your provider could decide what information that you are able to see by making some things easy to access while making others extremely slow or completely impossible to find. Basically without net neutrality the Internet would turn into a “tiered system” where those who can afford it would have the fast lane and everyone else would be stuck in the slow lane.
One of the fundamental ideas of the Internet from the beginning was that every website, feature, and service should be treated equally, without discrimination. This concept is what allows a blogger, like me, to compete with places like Fox News or CNN. When you do a search for something online, you should be able to pull up all of the things that best match your request, not the things that have paid more money to reach you.
Another problem is double charging. Right now network owners charge you for access to the Internet. Without net neutrality they will be able to charge you not only for access, but also for all of your activities while you’re online. They don’t even have to charge you directly. Because by charging huge fees to places like Netflix, for example, they will be forced to pass those charges onto the consumer. And everything you do online would be subject to fees, making the Internet essentially a pay-per-view medium.
Here’s President Obama talking about this very important subject….