I wasn’t going to talk about last week’s defeat of Net Neutrality mostly because everyone in the tech press seems to be doing it for me. I had a friend ask if I was going to say anything and my response was, “Probably not.”
I tend to shy away from politics and it’s well beyond what most of my readers want to read.
But yeah, I am disappointed.
The more that I thought about it, the more I came to realize that Net Neutrality is something that you probably should care about (or at least be aware of), even if you’re not in the United States. There are very strong opinions from all over the map on this one, and when someone says, “It’s the death of the internet!” it’s probably worth understanding what they’re talking about, whether or not you agree.
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How does Net Neutrality work?
For this to really make sense, I’m going to use real company names. I want to be clear – I am in no way accusing these companies of doing what I’m about to describe. The point is only that what I’m about to describe just became legal.
Over the past few years, Netflix has moved into the streaming media market. What originally started as a DVD-by-mail service has turned into a streaming video-on-demand service, using the internet as its delivery pipeline. With a Netflix streaming account, you go to their website to pick a video and it starts playing on your computer, streamed over the internet. (To be clear, this is not about Netflix. They are simply an easy-to-recognize example of a content provider. Any content provider is in the same position.)
Comcast is a large company as well. In the areas that they serve, they provide telephone, cable television, and internet service. (And again, to be clear: this is not about Comcast – they are simply an easy-to-recognize example of an internet service provider. Any ISP or internet-carrier is in this position.)
The conflict that arises is that Comcast provides:
- Cable television services that compete with Netflix.
- The internet connectivity over which Netflix delivers its product.
The concept of Net Neutrality states that in the process of delivering traffic over the internet, Comcast must remain “neutral” – and must treat all data flowing over its network equally, even if that data is that of a competitor.
Net Neutrality was struck down last week. That means Comcast and companies like it no longer have an obligation to treat all data as equal.
So, it’s now legal for Comcast (and companies in similar situations) to:
- Not carry Netflix-internet traffic at all.
- Charge Netflix to carry their internet traffic.
- Deliver Netflix’s internet traffic more slowly or with lower priority than other traffic.
As I said, as I write this, none of this is actually happening.
But it could.
And that has a lot of people scared.
The good, the bad, and the neutrality
I’ve used movies as my example, because the issues involved are clear and easy to understand. The problem is that this concept of not treating all internet traffic equally can in theory be applied to just about anything that the internet can provide.
The argument against Net Neutrality is primarily that it interferes with market forces and that marketplace competition makes it unnecessary. The thinking is that if customers don’t like how their ISP provides internet traffic, they can select another ISP.
I’m here to tell you that even just based on my own personal experience, the concept is so impractical as to be laughable. There are many, many people who have no practical alternative to the single ISP that they’re using today. As a result, without Net Neutrality in place, they are completely subject to the whims and priorities of that provider. They have no recourse should that provider decide to block streaming video services, internet telephony, or just about anything that they dislike.
The alternative that most are proposing (and indeed hoping for) is to classify ISPs as what are called common carriers. I’m not a lawyer, but my understanding is that this would put them in the same category as other pseudo-monopolies, such as utility providers – of which the copper-wire, plain-old-telephone-system (POTS) providers are already. The net result would presumably include regulation that would require them to treat all traffic equally. (The counter argument is a potential loss of incentive for further and innovative competition.)
Of course, it could turn out in any of a multitude of different ways.
What can be done?
Now, as a practical matter, I’m not panicking. That’s just not my style. However, there are those who see this as leading to the eventual fragmentation and collapse of the internet as we know it. I’m waiting it out. Today, as I write this, Comcast and the other players like it aren’t doing anything like I’ve described, even though they could. I’ll reserve my panic until something actually happens.
That doesn’t mean that I’m not in favor of Net Neutrality. Regardless of how we get there, I do believe in treating all traffic equally. Carriers remaining neutral to what traffic is flowing over their networks is vitally important to the health of the internet. Given what the internet has become, it follows that it’s equally important to our society as a whole.
I’d encourage you to find out more by following a couple of organizations who are involved in the fight to preserve (or now, reinstate) Net Neutrality:
- The Electronic Frontier Foundation or EFF is a non-profit activist organization defending digital rights across a wide spectrum of issues from NSA spying to copyright abuse to much, much more. The EFF is also on Facebook.
- Fight for the Future began as an organization focused on defeating SOPA, the “Stop Online Piracy Act.” Many people felt SOPA grossly overstepped and misrepresented its intentions. Since then, Fight for the Future has been championing various internet-freedom-related issues, including Net Neutrality. Fight for the Future is also on Facebook.
Those organizations may or may not be your cup of tea1, but they can be a good source of information.
As I’m sure you know by now, the future excites me; the internet and the global connectivity and community that it enables are a big part of that excitement. I believe it’s important to at least be aware of the decisions that are being made and how they could potentially alter what the future brings.
And as far as Net Neutrality goes, I predict that you’ll be hearing more about it in the coming months. The battles are far from over.