Net Neutrality is a big issue these days, and one that’s exploded out of the geek circles into mainstream media. I’ll admit that it seems like there are endless variations on exactly what people consider Net Neutrality to be (or what it should be). The general goal of Net Neutrality is to ensure that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) provide (relatively) unfiltered access to the Internet to their customers. Specifically, that if a given customer pays for a level of service - i.e. 10 Mbps downstream speed and 2.5 Mbps upstream speed - they receive that speed no matter what they are accessing. The goal of Net Neutrality is to require ISPs to treat their connections as a “common carrier”, much like telephone companies or freight trucks. Within reason (excepting explosives and other hazardous materials), UPS will ship a package for a given rate based only on what it weighs and how far it’s going (since the Internet is run by many companies, and data passes from one to another, the distance portion of this analogy is constant). They don’t charge more based on what’s in the box, and they don’t ship come boxes faster than others based simply on who sent it or what’s inside.
Likewise, over the past century, many laws have been created that regulate the telephone industry. While there was a time when customers had to rent their telephones from the phone company, long-standing legislation states that a customer can hook any properly functioning device into the phone network, and a customer can say whatever they want over the phone and receive the same call quality, at the same rate.
To try and summarize, the goal of Net Neutrality is to ensure that you, the customer of an ISP (whether cable, FiOS, DSL, etc.), is entitled to certain rights. Generally (the exact interpretation of this concept varies) this includes:
- The ability to connect any device you want to your Internet connection - any computer, game console, or other device, running any operating system or other software.
- Your ability to connect to any service (web site, protocol, etc.) that you want without it being intentionally degraded or slowed down, even if it’s a service viewed to be a competitor of your ISP.
- Your ability to transfer data to and from any other user of the Internet, regardless of who they are.
What could happen if Net Neutrality isn’t enforced?
Let me first say that most of the following is pure speculation. These are things that could happen, but most have not yet actually been done. Some have. The ISP industry seems to say that Net Neutrality is “a solution without a problem”, but my personal view is that those are generally good things. Preventing a problem from occurring is generally better than fixing it after it’s a problem. So here are a few scenarios of what could happen if Net Neutrality isn’t properly legislated and enforced:
- Companies like Cablevision, Comcast, Verizon, and other major ISPs also offer TV services (Optimum, FiOS TV, etc.) that include Video On Demand (VoD) as a separate paid service. Websites like Hulu and Netflix offer the same service, for free or a much cheaper rate. Without Net Neutrality, your ISP could intentionally slow down or block sites like Hulu or Netflix to force you to buy their more expensive service. Comcast has already tried to do something like this, asking Netflix’s ISP for a substantial fee to allow Comcast customers to access Netfix (that’s a bit of an oversimplification, but gets the point). If this happens, it’s most likely that Netfix will have to increase their fees substantially. Net Neutrality legislation would require ISPs like Comcast to treat all Internet traffic the same, whether it’s from Netflix, Facebook, or my humble little blog.
- A few ISPs (mainly Comcast) have already tried all-out blocking Peer to Peer (p2p) file sharing traffic such as bitTorrent, Kazaa, etc. While they cite copyright infringement as the reason, there are many people who use p2p file sharing to distribute legal files, such as the Linux operating system and other free software. Blocking all p2p traffic because some people use it for illegal purposes is based on a presumption of guilt, no different from outlawing steak knives because some people stab other people with them.
- Throughout the history of the Internet, some of the most popular and innovative technologies, including Google, Facebook, etc. have started out as small projects run by a few geeks and programmers. If ISPs were allowed to charge content providers (i.e. websites) to be viewed by the ISPs customers, it would limit innovation and new technologies to only the big businesses with enough money to pay these artificial tolls.
- Most ISPs also offer a phone service. It would be trivial for them to flat-out prevent their customers from using Vonage, Skype, iChat, etc. and force you to subscribe to their service. It’s also possible for them to do this in a covert way - when Comcast blocked bitTorrent users, they did it in a way so clever that it took weeks for experts to figure out.
- Without a mandate that any suitable device can connect to the network, your ISP could partner with, for example, Dell and Microsoft, and say that you could only get Internet access on a Dell computer running the latest version of Windows (yes, this is a bit of a stretch, but possible in an unregulated ISP market).
The important fact to note here is that most people in the US don’t have much choice in terms of broadband ISPs - generally the only “choice” is between the cable and phone companies, who provide more or less the same service. With such limited choice, Internet users are effectively held hostage by the policies of a handful of companies that control Internet access.
A short note on the History of the Internet
Contrary to the ISPs “solution without a problem” view, I think this is a solution that should have been implemented long ago. The network that evolved into what we now know as the Internet, in the US, was first developed in the 1970s. The project, ARPAnet, was developed by the US government for research purposes, and funded by taxpayer money. It wasn’t opened to commercial use until the early 1990s, when it was privatized. While the development into what is now the Internet could never have been foreseen at that time, Net Neutrality rules should have been built in from the start when the project was handed over from the federal government to the private sector. Regardless, it must be remembered that the Internet is a technology that was originally developed with taxpayer funds, for the country as a whole.
What the FCC’s doing
Well, in short, not much. It appears that the Net Neutrality rules delivered by the FCC earlier this week are, more than anything, a compromise effort to make the issue just “go away”. The ISPs feel that the rules aren’t needed (and argue that the FCC doesn’t have the power to make them), and most Net Neutrality proponents feel that the rules pay only lip service to the goals of Net Neutrality. The main failings already apparent in the rules are:
- Two of three major parts of the rules ignore wireless ISPs (cellular carriers). With the explosion of smartphones, it seems that wireless is not only the new frontier of the Internet, but the way that more and more people get Internet access. If Net Neutrality is legislated, it should be about the Internet - regardless of how a customer is connected to the network.
- There is a provision for ISPs to be able to block or slow down traffic as is “reasonable” to operate their network, but there are no guidelines on what “reasonable” means, and it seems that the burden of proof would be on the customer to fight their ISP in court and show that something was unreasonable.
Up until very recently, ISPs generally didn’t engage in the kind of conduct that Net Neutrality rules would prohibit. The Internet as we know it today is a product of a world with unwritten Net Neutrality rules. Amazing sites and services like Facebook, Google, Twitter, and many others started as experiments by a few dedicated people with little to no budget. The fact that you can easily view web pages created by anyone - like my blog - would be ended if website publishers had to pay ISPs to be allowed through. The choice that you have in using your ISP’s TV or phone service, or something like Netflix or Vonage, is central to the Internet as we know it, but is under attack. I know that many people look at this as a “problem for the geeks”. We take the Internet for granted. Over the next few days, every time you visit a web site or use an Internet-based service, ask yourself: Would I be happy if I had to pay for this? Would this even exist if the people who designed it had to pay from day one? Make no mistake, if websites have to pay every ISP in the country to be viewed, the days of wonderful free services sustained by advertising revenue only will be long gone.
In closing, I highly recommend reading an open letter on Net Neutrality by Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, genius, and guy who helped change the world as we know it.
Some other interesting links: