Depending on how you get your news, the topic of network neutrality can seem boring, or confusing, or both. Possibly you haven’t yet heard about it, or you’ve already formed an opinion. The reports I see are too often complicated, lacking reasoned arguments and full of hyperbolic guesses as to what the future might hold. Not to mention that both supporters and critics say that their side is the one promoting “freedom”. I’ve read all the boringly-written PDFs about the FCC’s new guidelines for you, and here’s what it means.
Same as it is now
Enacting an official policy of network neutrality means that the Internet you use now will not change. Broadband providers have ideas about limiting access to some content for customers who don’t pay as much, or aren’t on their networks.
As the specific FCC guideline is written:
Without Net Neutrality
For example, imagine if you needed to be a Verizon FiOS subscriber in order to access www.startrek.com. Star Trek fans who didn’t have FiOS would throw a fit (those same Star Trek fans might recall this actually happened on AOL many years ago). As an alternative, the owners of www.startrek.com work out a deal with the other big broadband companies and they say, “okay, fine, you can have access to it, but your broadband bill will be $5 more per month”. Meanwhile, FiOS subscribers aren’t paying $5 a month for the Web site. Sound fair?
Here’s another made-up example of a world without net neutrality: you have AT&T broadband at home, and a Sprint mobile phone through work. Your company uses Google Apps, but AT&T decides they don’t like Google, so you can’t get to your work e-mail from home. Does that sound like a good idea to you? If you’re against that idea, then you are in favor of net neutrality.
No reason for prices to change
The Internet was built by a bunch of nerdy scientists to be open and accessible to everyone. It isn’t free, because moving data requires paying people to do various jobs. At my house, we’re paying about $60 / month for some very fast Internet. Critics of net neutrality claim that “new rules” will force providers to raise prices. But remember, neutrality is what we have now, as it’s been regulated by the FCC in the past on a case-by-case basis, so there’s no logical reason to raise prices for anyone. Besides, $60 a month is almost highway robbery as it is.
Internet providers charge more for faster speeds, and less for slower speeds. Critics of neutrality want to invent new ways to charge people in addition to this one simple rule.
Regarding congestion and illegal activities
The FCC’s published guidelines (they’re just getting started writing the actual rules), make exceptions that give Internet providers the ability to manage network congestion and prevent illegal activities. So if you’re on cable, and you’ve got neighbors downloading (and uploading) 68 gigabytes of Star Trek movies, providers can find a way to stop your speeds from being negatively affected. The new rules do not prevent throttling, and they do not encourage illegal activities.
Avoiding an ugly fight
I’m speculating here, but ensuring network neutrality will also mean side-stepping huge Public Relations nightmares for broadband companies. I think a provider has the right to consider limiting access to certain content or applications, and I think it would be massively stupid of them to go through with it. Millions of people would be instantly enraged.
Back when you needed to be an AOL subscriber to access www.startrek.com, they got complaint after complaint, and it was less than a year before access was returned to everyone. Why would anyone want to go through with that again?
Preserving a Free and Open Internet, at the FCC’s OpenInternet.gov web site (which is accessible to everyone)
Published or updated October 23, 2009.