Net Neutrality: What You Need to Know
Network neutrality has become a hot topic for internet debate in recent months, yet there are too many people who have no idea what it actually is. The president has promised to do everything in his power to preserve it, while internet service providers (abbreviated ISP’s) are doing everything in their power to make sure it disappears forever. ISP’s are companies like Comcast, Cox, and Verizon. Basically, the companies you pay in order for you to connect to the internet. They are corporate titans with scores of lobbyists who are getting paid to make sure that net neutrality is a thing of the past. Forget Apple, Microsoft, OS X, Windows, and other tech debates. Net neutrality is the single greatest threat, divide, whatever you want to call it, facing the internet today. So, what exactly is net neutrality, and why is it important?
To begin understanding net neutrality, we must first begin by exploring how people today use the internet. Say that you want to want to learn more about the new iPod Nano. You might start by opening your web browser and visiting Google to search for information relating to it. Your first result leads you to YouTube, where you find a video review of the nano. You watch the review and find a link in the description which leads you to Engadget’s hands on with the new nano. You read the article and love it so much that you need to share it with the world. You then proceed to Digg it, and tweet the url on Twitter.
Now, the series of tasks you just completed emphasizes a major premise of the internet. One that would disappear if net neutrality did. You had a free choice in every step you took, and that is the most important point. First, you choose to use Google. Then you chose to click the YouTube link, and the link within YouTube to take you to Engadget. You then chose to use Digg and Twitter. You didn’t have to use these services, though. You could have searched with Bing, watched a video on Yahoo Video, and clicked a link to take you to Gizmodo. You could have, but you didn’t. You didn’t have to pay any extra money to make those choices, either. This is the concept of net neutrality, and now, it could all disappear.
You see, American ISP’s want to change all of this. They want to influence the choices you make online, and get paid to do it. Right now, consider all access to the internet to be confined within one “tunnel.” This “tunnel” has one relatively
fast speed, and offers access to every website you know and love (and even those you don’t) without restriction. If the internet was no longer neutral , there would be a second, “premium tunnel” in addition to the “standard tunnel”. This would be very fast, but only to the select websites that payed your ISP to be in this “premium tunnel.” In addition, the original channel would be slowed down or blocked entirely in order to make the premium one more appealing. Let’s look at the example from before, starting with Google. Lets pretend net neutrality no longer exists and Yahoo has forged a deal with your ISP to be the preferred search engine for all of its customers. Google hasn’t paid to be in the “premium tunnel,” but Yahoo has, so your ISP has slowed your access to Google in order to make Yahoo search more favorable to you as a customer. Google may be the better engine, but thanks to your ISP, your only choice is Yahoo unless you want to wait forever. So after filtering through pages of Yahoo search results, you finally found the video you’re looking for. Unfortunately, you haven’t ordered your ISP’s premium package, and therefore you don’t subscribe to the particular tunnel that YouTube is in. Looks like you’ll have to use AOL video instead.
I could keep going with this analogy, but it would just get more confusing. Basically, if the net stops being neutral, you will be forced to pay extra for services that you currently use for free. It is feared that only sites with big budgets will be able to afford access to the premium tunnel, and therefore your living room. This leaves sites with smaller budgets out in the cold. Acts like these hurt us on a huge level by destroying the thing that makes the internet so great.: everybody gets a voice. Right now, no matter how much money or how little money you have, you can reach millions of people and share your opinions, knowledge, and content with the world. By killing net neutrality, we would be killing our ability to share everything we have to offer. Do we really need another cable tv? A closed forum where big corporations can share the information they want us to see and only that. This creates monopolies and leaves no room for the little guy, drastically changing the internet as we know it. Sure the original internet might be there, but it will be slower and more difficult to access. This eliminates the chances that most smaller websites currently have.
The other side of the net neutrality debate maintains that the internet should be free from government control, and that the government should not intervene in keeping the net neutral. As John McCain stated in an interview with Google CEO Eric Schmidt during the 2008 presidential debate:
When you control the pipe, you should be able to get a profit from your investment.
This raises an interesting concept. Do ISP’s have the right to limit access to their customers? After all, they did pay for the infrastructure required to bring the internet to your home. Shouldn’t they be able to control what’s going on?
Apparently the FCC doesn’t think so. On Monday (9/21/09), the FCC is expected to release new proposed plans that will take steps to keep the internet neutral. Not much is known about them at this point, so we’ll have to wait until at least Monday before any major updates. Stay tuned.