Net neutrality

Why this issue matters to all Internet users

Created date

January 22nd, 2015
Couple using laptop
Couple using laptop

Odds are you’ve heard about “net neutrality.” What isn’t quite so certain is whether someone has explained it clearly. 

Especially in the last several months, net neutrality has been in the news, but its appearances were reminiscent of phantoms—foggy glimpses here and there based on fragmented, sometimes incoherent, descriptions.  

The fact is, if you have a computer and an Internet connection, net neutrality matters to you. Here are some of the basic yet essential facts to help you understand how and why.

What is net neutrality?

Simply put, net neutrality is the principle that Internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all of their traffic equally. In other words, a given Internet service provider should not favor Netflix and its customers with a higher data transfer speed than, say, Hulu and its viewers.

Higher data speeds

Throughout the country there are a few major ISPs. The leading outfits are Time-Warner, Comcast, and Verizon. 

The Internet is all about speed in this lightning-fast, digital age of high-definition videos, iTunes, Hulu, and Netflix. Watching movies and television shows, playing games, and downloading files in the blink of an eye have become more of an expectation than a luxury. 

Of course, ISPs realize this. If you’ve seen their commercials, you know that they build their advertising campaigns around that premise.

‘Paid prioritization’

But lately, ISPs have been talking about exploiting speed at another level, one that will affect all Internet users in good and bad ways depending on the services to which they subscribe. 

It’s a practice called “paid prioritization.”

For example, if Netflix paid an Internet service provider an additional fee, that provider would grant Netflix a faster-than-average data transfer speed, thus giving them an edge over their competition. This, however, would predictably put other companies and Web surfers at a disadvantage.

Rumblings in 2014 indicated that companies were looking to put such plans in motion. That same year, Comcast and Verizon actually signed deals with Netflix, guaranteeing the online video giant’s subscribers higher speeds and better picture quality. 

You may ask, doesn’t the government already prohibit such a thing? Well, the short but technical answer is no. There have been lawsuits over paid prioritization in which activist organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have been party. 

As a rule, though, there is no government regulatory barrier—not yet, anyway.

So, what do net neutrality supporters want from the federal government in the way of regulation?

Not much, despite what some news outlets have reported about the potential depth of government regulation concerning net neutrality. In a nutshell, supporters want the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to reclassify Internet service providers as “common carriers,” a category of supplier that furnishes the population at large with a specific need or service (typically utilities and other necessities).

For instance, gas and electric and telephone companies are common carriers.

The common carrier classification forbids providers from discriminating in their provision of services on any basis or for any reason. Therefore, classifying ISPs as members of this group would effectively quash paid prioritization.

Opponents of net neutrality (most of whom are—you guessed it—Internet service providers) say that their main worry isn’t so much about their reclassification as “common carriers” as it is with future government regulation.

This is the Pandora’s Box theory. If you give the government an inch of regulatory power, it will inevitably turn into miles of stifling oversight.

Net neutrality opponents argue that such an outcome would, at least in theory, effectively kill the Wild West environment in which the Web’s free exchange of information has flourished for so many years.

What to expect

With the recent party shift in Congress and the high-stakes at play for ISPs and users alike, what remains in store is anyone’s guess. This story is far from over.

But you can be sure of one thing. When the next chapter on net neutrality unfolds, you’ll know what you’re reading.