10 Reasons Why You Should Care About Net Neutrality
By Dave Roos, How Stuff Works, 3 July 2014.
By Dave Roos, How Stuff Works, 3 July 2014.
You've probably seen lots of stories about net neutrality lately, and like any reasonable person, you've ignored them completely. That's because "net" and "neutrality," as comedian and TV host John Oliver rightly described them, are two of the most boring words in the English language. Put them together and the combination is more yawn-inducing than two Ambien and a warm mug of milk.
People demonstrate for net neutrality outside a fundraiser in Bel-Air, California, attended by President
Barack Obama in May 2014. See Internet connection pictures.
But the annoying truth is that you should care about net neutrality. The United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is about to rewrite the rules that keep the Internet free and open. If you care about any of the following freedoms, then you should care about preserving net neutrality:
- Freedom from monopolies
- Freedom to start a business and compete on a level playing field
- Freedom of online speech
- Freedom to visit any Website you want at the fastest browsing speed
If you're still not convinced, we've assembled a not-boring-at-all list of the 10 reasons you should care about net neutrality. No coffee needed to read this!
10. You Expect the Internet to Be Free and Open
Online shopping is just one thing that wouldn't exist without the Internet.
Even if you're not an electrical engineer, you have a general idea of how the Internet works. It's a global network - literally a worldwide web - of interconnected computers. The modern Internet was invented to be a free and open network that allows anyone with a Web connection to communicate directly with any individual or computer on that network [source: World Wide Web Foundation].
Over the past 25 years, the Internet has transformed the way we do just about everything. Think about the conveniences and services that wouldn't exist without the Internet:
- instant access to information about everything email
- online social networks
- independent global news sources
- streaming movies, TV shows and music
- video calls and videoconferencing
The Internet has evolved so quickly and works so well precisely because the technology behind the Internet is neutral. In other words, the physical cables, routers, switches, servers and software that run the Internet treat every byte of data equally. A streaming movie from Netflix shares the same crowded fibre optic cable as the pictures from your niece's birthday. The Internet doesn't pick favourites.
That, at its core, is what net neutrality means. And that's one of the most important reasons why you should care about it: to keep the Internet as free, open and fair as possible, just as it was designed to be.
9. China Has a Non-Neutral Internet
A woman views the Chinese social media website Weibo at a cafe in Beijing. The Chinese government
routinely forces ISPs to block websites it does not like.
If you're lucky enough to live in a country that doesn't regulate the information you access online, you probably take net neutrality for granted. You search the Web unrestricted by government censors, free to choose what information to believe or discard, and what websites and online services to patronize.
In mainland China, citizens of the highly restrictive communist regime enjoy no such freedoms. This is what a heavily censored and closely monitored Internet looks like [source: The Economist]:
- Chinese internet service providers (ISPs) block access to a long list of sites banned by the government.
- Specific search terms are red flagged; type them into Google and you'll be blocked from the search engine for 90 seconds.
- Chinese ISPs are given lists of problematic keywords and ordered to take down pages that include those words.
- The government and private companies employ 100,000 people to police the Internet and snitch on dissenters.
- The government also pays people to post pro-government messages on social networks, blogs and message boards.
Proponents of net neutrality aren't arguing that the FCC's proposed rule changes will turn the U.S. into a China-like censorship state. Instead, they worry that corporations will buy influence with ISPs to disrupt access to competitors, or smother online speech that's critical of a company or its products.
8. How the Internet Really Works
This is one of the data centres that make up the Internet backbone; companies like Google bypass this to
connect directly to an ISP.
It turns out that our layman's understanding of how the Internet works - a worldwide Web of computers linked on a free, open network - is a bit of a fairy tale. The truth is that those fast lanes demonized by net neutrality advocates already exist. Highly successful and high-traffic Web companies like Google, Facebook and Netflix already pay for direct access - inside access, in some cases - to Internet service providers like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon [source: McMillan].
There are two types of fast lanes that exist today [source: McMillan]:
- Peering - Most Web companies need to send their data across the broader Internet backbone (the cables and data centres operated by companies around the world) before it arrives at an ISP and is served to individual users. Wealthier companies can pay ISPs for a direct connection called peering that bypasses the Internet backbone and speeds data transfers.
- Content Delivery Network - Ever wonder how Google can serve up search results so quickly? The search giant pays for the privilege to set up its own servers inside the bowels of ISPs so it can deliver the most popular searches and images even faster.
If Web companies can already pay ISPs for preferential treatment, then why are net neutrality advocates making such a stink about the FCC's proposed rule change? First off, the concern is for the last mile, the connection between an ISP and a consumer's home, which has been regulated differently from the connection between a Web company and an ISP [source: Nagesh]. The other issue is the monopolies enjoyed by American ISPs and their chilling effect on competition. We'll dive into that next.
7. Net Neutrality Calls Attention to ISP Monopolies
A Comcast worker installs Xfinity cable service to a residential home. Comcast is one of the biggest of
Internet service providers in the U.S.
Comcast Corporation, America's biggest Internet service provider, is also the country's largest cable company, and - with its ownership of NBC Universal - the world's largest media company [source: Cassidy]. If regulators allow Comcast to merge with Time Warner - the second largest ISP and cable company in America - the combined mega-corporation would provide high-speed Internet access to 40 percent of American homes [source: NY Times Editorial Board].
There is genuine concern that a handful of powerful ISPs have become the gatekeepers of the Internet, picking winners and losers according to the size of their checks. For a Web company to get its content to consumers, it has no choice but to go through an ISP [source: McMillan]. And considering that Comcast, Verizon and Time Warner enjoy de facto monopolies in many large cable markets across America, Web companies must bow to the local king.
Even Tim Wu, who coined the phrase net neutrality, argues that the real issue isn't fast lanes, but rather increasing competition among ISPs [source: McMillan]. One way to do that would be to follow the example of the United Kingdom, where regulators require ISPs and cable companies to lease their fibre optic lines to competitors at cost [source: Cassidy]. Without that rule, it would be far too expensive for an upstart ISP to enter the market, which is exactly the reality in the U.S. today.
6. A Neutral Internet Promotes Competition
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler speaks during a news conference after an open meeting to receive public
comment on possible changes to net neutrality.
On its website, the FCC sings the virtues of the Open Internet:
"The principle of the Open Internet is sometimes referred to as 'net neutrality.' Under this principle, consumers can make their own choices about what applications and services to use and are free to decide what lawful content they want to access, create, or share with others... Once you're online, you don't have to ask permission or pay tolls to broadband providers to reach others on the network. If you develop an innovative new website, you don't have to get permission to share it with the world."
This is the type of open, competition-friendly Internet protected by the FCC's 2010 Open Internet Order, a package of regulations that makes it illegal for Internet service providers (ISPs) to create Internet fast lanes for Web companies willing to pay a hefty toll.
A January 2014 court decision struck down portions of the Open Internet Order that blocked ISPs from creating these high-speed Internet toll roads [source: Ammori]. In response to the ruling, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler promised that his agency would continue to protect consumers and promote competition [source: Wheeler]. Net neutrality advocates were surprised and angry, therefore, when Wheeler - a former chief lobbyist for the telecommunications industry - released a set of proposed rules in April that allowed for the creation of paid fast lanes [sources: Cassidy and van Schewick].
If the FCC allows ISPs to give preferential treatment to high-paying clients, it could create a seriously uneven playing field in which small start-ups are relegated to the slow lane while wealthy corporations cruise along at light speed.
5. ISPs Have a History of Slowing or Blocking Data
Lea DeLaria of Netflix's 'Orange Is The New Black' attends San Francisco Pride Day in 2014. Netflix has
had to pay ISPs like Comcast and Verizon extra money to handle all the streaming video content
Proponents of net neutrality talk about big ISPs like Comcast and Time Warner as if they were ruthless corporations that would stop at nothing to gain a competitive edge. Every ISP wants to increase market share and make its shareholders happy, but ISPs also want to please their customers...right?
Not according to a 2014 survey called the American Consumer Satisfaction Index, in which Comcast and Time Warner customers gave their cable companies a failing grade for "high prices, poor reliability and declining customer service" [source: Aamoth].
In fact, Comcast has a history of sacrificing the quality of its customer experience in order to get more money from content providers. Starting in 2012, Comcast got in a fight with Netflix over the amount of bandwidth the streaming video site required from Comcast-owned networks. Comcast refused to upgrade its equipment to handle the increased traffic unless Netflix paid up [source: Associated Press]. The battle waged on for two years, during which Netflix service for millions of Comcast subscribers slowed to a crawl.
Since Comcast essentially owns the last-mile connection to 22 million homes, Netflix had no choice but to pay for a direct peering arrangement. Verizon pulled a similar strong-arm tactic to get more money from Netflix in an earlier backroom deal [source: Kang]. These examples and others worry net neutrality advocates who fear that the FCC's proposed rules will sanction more anti-competitive behaviour.
4. It Would Create an Internet 'One Percent'
In 2014, only 30 Internet companies accounted for 50 percent of Internet traffic, including Google
One percent of the world's population controls almost 50 percent of the world's wealth, according to the poverty eradication non-profit Oxfam [source: Neuman]. Advocates of net neutrality worry that loosening the rules for ISPs will result in a one-percent version of the Internet.
Here's how it could happen. In 2004, Internet traffic was more or less equally distributed across thousands of Web companies. Just 10 years later, half of all Internet traffic originated from only 30 companies [source: McMillan]. The top three websites by daily unique visitors and page views are Google, Facebook and YouTube [source: Alexa]. In terms of data, Netflix and YouTube hog more than half of all downstream traffic in North America [source: Daileda]. That means one out of every two bytes of data traveling across the Internet is streaming video from Netflix or YouTube.
If the distribution of Internet traffic is so out of whack now, imagine what it would be like if ISPs were given the green light to give further preferential treatment to the biggest players. Would there be any bandwidth left for the 99 percent - independent video producers, upstart social media sites, bloggers and podcasters?
3. Net Neutrality Protects Free Speech
Protesters hold a rally to urge the FCC to reject a proposal allowing ISPs to create last-mile fast lanes.
This is a really important reason why you should care about net neutrality. The Internet, as it exists today, is an open forum for free speech and freedom of expression. Websites publishing both popular and unpopular viewpoints are treated equally in terms of how their data gets from servers to screens.
If the FCC allows Internet service providers (ISPs) to charge extra money for access to Internet last-mile fast lanes, the playing field of free speech is no longer equal. Those with the money to pay for special treatment could broadcast their opinions more quickly and more smoothly than their opponents. Those without as many resources - activists, artists and political outsiders - could be relegated to the Internet slow lane [source: van Schewick].
If you had to choose between watching a sharp full-screen HD video broadcast or a clunking, buffering, blurry clip, which would you pick?
2. Net Neutrality Has Political Implications
Eric Schmidt (R), Google chairman and CEO, interviews then-presidential hopeful Barack Obama during
a town hall meeting at Google headquarters in 2007.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that Democrats and Republicans square off on opposite sides of the net neutrality debate.
As a whole, Democratic lawmakers are against the proposed changes to FCC regulations that would allow ISPs to charge for VIP fast-lane treatment on their broadband networks. "The website of a Minnesota small business should load as quickly as the website of a large corporation," said Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn. [source: Risen].
Republicans, too, are fighting in the name of innovation and fair play. Their argument is that unnecessary government regulations - in this case, the previous FCC ban on fast lanes - are the greatest hindrance to innovation. If a company engages in anti-competitive practices, some Republican lawmakers argue, then the government can prosecute them using existing antitrust laws [source: Nagesh]. According to their stance, new regulations discourage new ideas, not protect them.
President Obama was a vocal supporter of net neutrality during his 2008 campaign, but has disappointed supporters who disapproved of his appointment of the former head of the trade group Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, Tom Wheeler, as FCC chief. They were also upset with the president's non-committal response to the proposed FCC rule changes [source: Edwards].
1. It's Decision Time
Comedian John Oliver's tirade triggered a deluge of comments to the FCC website over net neutrality.
The final and most important reason to care about net neutrality right now is that it's still up for debate.
The FCC released a proposed set of rule changes on May 15, 2014 in a long document called Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet. Starting on that date, the general U.S. public has the opportunity to post comments on the new net neutrality rules for 120 days, after which the FCC will take a final vote on the matter.
The FCC public comment website has received a deluge of posts - more than 134,000 in the month of June 2014. In comparison, the proposed merger of Comcast and Time Warner has received just 11,224 comments in the same time period [source: FCC]. The flood of comments were triggered by comedian John Oliver's R-rated rant on his HBO program Last Week Tonight. Oliver's hilarious tirade went viral on YouTube and the crush of traffic to the FCC comment page temporarily crashed the site [source: Gross].
If you have a strong opinion on the future of the open Internet, let your voice be heard by posting a comment to the FCC. Before you do, though, you might want to read the public statements of FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, both of whom voice ardent support of an open and free Internet.
Having lived through the Enron fiasco and the Wall Street shenanigans leading to the global financial collapse, I am extremely wary of the motives of corporate America. That said, I wonder if the fears expressed by net neutrality advocates - that the FCC is sanctioning a two-tier system that will "break" the Internet - aren't the stuff of conspiracy theorists. Reading the public statements by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, the FCC will actively bar ISPs from engaging in anti-competitive practices, specifically slowing or blocking the traffic of Web companies that refuse to pay up.
Secondly, it appears that there is already a de facto two-tier system in which high-traffic bandwidth hogs must pay for peering deals with ISPs to ensure that their Web content streams smoothly. The FCC is proposing that ISPs be allowed to engage in commercially reasonable traffic management. Undoubtedly ISPs will try to stretch the definition of "reasonable," but I have faith that the FCC leadership will keep the corporate "creativity" in check.
1. Aamoth, Doug. "Everybody Hates Time Warner and Comcast." Time. May 20, 2014 (June 27, 2014)
2. Alexa. "The top 500 sites on the Web" (June 27, 2014)
3. Ammori, Marvin. "John Oliver's Hilarious Net Neutrality Piece Speaks the Truth." Slate. June 6, 2014 (June 27, 2014)
4. Associated Press. "Cogent CEO: Comcast purposefully slowed down Netflix streaming." May 8, 2014 (June 27, 2014)
5. Cassidy, John. "Obama's Bad Pick: A Former Lobbyist At the F.C.C." The New Yorker. May 2, 2013 (June 27, 2014)
6. Cassidy, John. "We Need Real Competition, Not a Cable-Internet Monopoly." The New Yorker. Feb. 13, 2014 (June 27, 2014)
7. Daileda, Colin. "Report: Netflix and YouTube Account for Half of Internet's Traffic." Mashable. Nov. 12, 2013 (June 27, 2014)
8. The Economist. "How does China censor the Internet?" April 21, 2013 (June 27, 2014)
9. Edwards, Haley Sweetland. "Obama Backs Away from Net Neutrality Campaign Promises After FCC Vote." Time. May 15, 2014 (June 27, 2014)
10. Federal Communications Commission. "Open Internet" (June 27, 2014)
11. Federal Communications Commission. "Send Us Your Comments" (June 27, 2014)
12. Gross, Grant. "Deluge of net neutrality comments floods FCC website after Oliver rallies audience." PC World. June 4, 2014 (June 27, 2014)
13. Kang, Cecilia. "Netflix strikes deal to pay Comcast to ensure online videos are streamed smoothly." The Washington Post. Feb. 23, 2014 (June 27, 2014)
14. McMillan, Robert. "What Everyone Gets Wrong in the Debate Over Net Neutrality." Wired. June 23, 2014 (June 27, 2014)
15. Nagesh, Gautham. "House Republicans Say FCC Net Neutrality Laws are Unnecessary, Overreach." The Wall Street Journal. June 20, 2014 (June 27, 2014)
16. The New York Times Editorial Board. "A Cable Merger Too Far." May 26, 2014 (June 27, 2014) http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/27/opinion/a-cable-merger-too-far.html
17. Neuman, Scott. "Oxfam: World's Richest 1 Percent Control Half of Global Wealth." NPR. Jan. 20, 2014 (June 27, 2014)
18. van Schewick, Barbara. "The FCC Changed Course on Net Neutrality. Here's Why You Should Care." The Stanford Center for Internet and Society. April 25, 2014 (June 27, 2014)
19. Wheeler, Tom. "Statement by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler on the FCC's Open Internet Rules." FCC. Feb. 19, 2014 (June 27, 2014)
20. World Wide Web Foundation. "History of the Web" (June 27, 2014)
Top image via Daily Kos.
[Post Source: How Stuff Works. Edited. Top image added.]