Net Neutrality

Net Neutrality in 60 Seconds or Less

What’s at stake — and what you might be overlooking — in this increasingly heated debate.

December 2014

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Net Neutrality

Net neutrality: It’s a term bandied about in the media nearly every day, but too often without much context. What exactly does it mean? What’s at stake for people and businesses concerned about connectivity? And perhaps most important, what vital questions does the buzzword obscure?

First of all, what is net neutrality?

On its surface, net neutrality is simple. It’s the principle that both internet service providers (ISPs, which include your local web services provider) and the government should treat all web traffic (data) equally.

The term has been around for about a decade now. In its expanded sense, net neutrality is sometimes used in a way that encompasses concepts such as lack of censorship online, transparency, low barriers to entry, and the like.

What’s at stake?

If codified into law, net neutrality would preclude ISPs from establishing and selling so-called “fast lanes” to content providers. No one person’s or brand’s content would be given special treatment.

Net neutrality proponents say it’s essential to leveling the playing field, allowing startups to compete with large, established content providers. Without net neutrality, the next Facebook or Dropbox wouldn’t have a chance.

Net neutrality opponents will tell you that much of the proposed regulation and restrictions go too far, and that they will block ISP innovation and restrict infrastructure investments that are vital to building the next-generation internet.

In the U.S., Congress, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and the courts have spent much of the last decade debating whether and how to protect network neutrality. That debate is continuing to heat up.

What’s the relevant history?

If you imagine the internet as a massive and complex network that connects everyone in more or less the same way — like an endless spider web — your understanding of the internet is a good 10 years out of date.

Thanks to a combination of competitive victories, mergers and consolidation, today’s internet is more like a solar system of huge ISPs and content-distribution companies. Just like planets, they exert tremendous influence on everything around them.

Think of the device you’re using to read this content. Or the search engine or social media platform that allowed you to find it. And the ISP that ultimately delivered it to you. You’re not relying on a long list of brands for content and connectivity every day. Half of all today’s internet traffic comes from just 30 companies: Google, Facebook, Netflix, Amazon, and so on.

What might people be missing?

A recent Wired article argues that a fast lane internet is essentially here. Why? Major players such as Google and Facebook have already placed “content delivery servers” within big ISPs such as Comcast and Verizon to gain speed and service reliability advantages. The same article suggests that the entire debate around fast lanes is misdirected. We shouldn’t be increasing regulation, Wired argues, we should be promoting competition among ISPs to ensure open and fair services.

What will happen next?

In the U.S., it boils down to this: How will the government classify and regulate ISPs moving forward? More than anything else, the answer to that question will determine the fate of net neutrality.

Since the early 2000s, the Federal Communications Commission has classified ISPs as lightly regulated “information services” companies. Many net neutrality proponents believe they should be reclassified as “telecommunications services” providers — you’ll hear this referred to as the Title II option — which would regulate them more closely, like utilities.

In November 2014, President Obama recommended the FCC do precisely that. The ISPs are concerned, and so now the policy battle is only intensifying.

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