What is Net Neutrality, and why should you care?

Recent decisions by the current administration have brought the concept of Net Neutrality to the forefront of public debate. These decisions aren’t surprising, as the administration has signaled that they would repeal the safeguards put in place by the previous administration all along.

What is Net Neutrality?

Net Neutrality is the concept that all internet data should be treated equally. That the internet service providers (ISP) shouldn’t treat data differently based on its source or type. There are four key tenants of Net Neutrality:

  • No Blocking - ISPs can’t block websites/data
  • No Throttling - ISPs can’t throttle traffic from particular websites or specific types of data
  • No Prioritization - ISPs can’t prioritize content from a particular website or a specific type of data
  • Transparency - ISPs have to disclose how they manage their network speeds

This concept of treating all data the same is an essential foundation for the Internet as we know it. Without Net Neutrality safeguards, ISPs are free to manage data as they see fit. This would allow them to prioritize (speed up) specific data and discriminate against (slow down), or downright block other data. These rules came around because major ISPs were blocking (bit-torrent, peer-to-peer networks) or throttling (Vonage) services that either overwhelmed their networks or offered a competing product.

What is changing?

In 2015, the FCC reclassified the internet as a utility which gave them the ability to enforce Net Neutrality rules. The current FCC chairman has announced that the Net Neutrality rules put in place by the previous administration will be wiped away in favor of a more hands-off approach, giving the ISPs freedom to behave as they see fit but with more FCC and FTC oversight.

How will this impact me?

In the short term, not much will change. In the long-run, it could get messy.

When we think about the internet, we don’t think about it as specific sites or destinations (although, for a large percentage of the population, they would use the terms “Facebook” and “The Internet” interchangeably). These new rules, or, lack of rules, would give the ISPs the freedom to create packages of internet services, much like the current television channel packages, for destination websites/services.

For example, they could create a streaming video package that includes priority (fast) access to Netflix, Hulu and YouTube for an added fee on top of your standard internet service fee. Or, they could create a gaming package that speeds up access to the PlayStation or Xbox networks. Conversely, they could speed up their own video-on-demand services while throttling other services, like Netflix.

In the long-run, it could get cheaper.

In another scenario, your costs may go down as the ISPs extract fees from websites/services, like Netflix, for priority access. In this type of scenario, Netflix could pay for prioritization while a competing service, like Hulu, which didn’t pay for prioritization would be perceptibly slower by comparison. Or, in the worst case, most-unlikely scenario, a competing service could be throttled or blocked. In this type of scenario, your internet access costs may get cheaper, but your subscription cost would likely go up. Costs to businesses are generally passed on to consumers. I wouldn’t expect this to be any different.

If there were competition in the marketplace, i.e. more than one high-speed internet service provider, this might lead to some real advantage for consumers, both in savings and added features. Unfortunately, the current landscape, especially here in West Virginia, has one option for legitimate, high-speed internet - Comcast - meaning, we are at their mercy.

How will this impact the internet? The rich get richer?

In the past, well-capitalized, established companies could be disrupted by competition in the marketplace. Without Net Neutrality rules, the new establishment, companies like Netflix, Facebook, Amazon, and Google can use network effects (large userbases) and their vast resources to ensure that they are not disrupted by upstarts. They can keep them out of the market long enough to either purchase them or, more likely, copy their features and run them out of business.

This suppression of innovation has already begun and will only get worse without these rules. Look no further than Facebook/Instagram. Snapchat innovates with disappearing video messages, gains market share (and mindshare among millennials) and gets the attention of Facebook. Facebook, with its extensive network of users, incorporates a similar feature into Instagram, allowing users to have feature parity without having to try out the rival service, decreasing the opportunity for Snapchat to gain market share. Looking at the quarterly numbers for Snapchat, you can see the effects. Their user growth has plateaued.

These rules aren’t about protecting Netflix, they’re about protecting the next Netflix.

What can be done?

As an individual, you can contact your congressman! Battleforthenet.com has made it very easy to contact your congressman to tell them how you feel about this. Tell them that they need to make Net Neutrality law. Without a law, this will continue to be a political football and will vary based on the whims of the current administration.

We can shun businesses that opt for priority access. As consumers, we hold a lot of power within the confines of our bank accounts. What would happen if we decided, en masse, to not use services that paid for priority access?

It’s unlikely that this movement will be abated, so what can we do on net neutrality is removed?

We can shun businesses that opt for priority access. As consumers, we hold a lot of power within the confines of our bank accounts. What would happen if we decided, en masse, to not use services that paid for priority access?

As businesses, we can utterly reject the concept of priority access. Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple can decide to not participate in this new marketplace and pressure other like-minded businesses to do the same. How would this decision impact the plans of the major internet service providers?

Ultimately, we don’t know what’s going to happen. Maybe this will lead to innovation within the marketplace, and we’ll all have so much cheap data that it won’t matter. Then again, I wouldn’t bet on it.

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Photo Credit: https://flic.kr/p/4RFmiQ