Today’s Snapshot Series features Director of Technology Ben Nader, who gives an excellent overview of net neutrality, or the concept of a free and open internet, and the proposed changes that are being discussed in Washington.
Net Neutrality: What it Means for the Average American
This past week there has been a lot of attention focused on the FCC and the issues of net neutrality and Internet fast lanes. Statements have been made on both sides of the aisle, from President Obama asking the FCC to reclassify the Internet as a public utility to Senator Ted Cruz claiming “‘Net Neutrality’ is Obamacare for the Internet…” Even with the increased attention, many individuals are not able to grasp the importance of this decision, or don’t understand what is being proposed. My hope with this article is to break down the jargon surrounding net neutrality so that the average Internet user, one with little background in technology, can understand what is happening and will be able to make an informed decision.
What is Net Neutrality?
Sometimes referred to as the “Open Internet,” net neutrality is the Internet that we currently know. According to the FCC, “It’s open [or neutral] because it uses free, publicly available standards that anyone can access and build to, and it treats all traffic that flows across the network in roughly the same way…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.”
Net neutrality guarantees a level playing field where Internet users will not have to pay their Internet Service Providers (ISP) more money to access online content. It additionally protects content generators, such as Facebook or Netflix, from having to pay additional fees to ensure that users will have access their websites and apps.
Why is it an Issue Now?
Net neutrality became an issue back in December of 2010 when the FCC released the Open Internet Order, which established high-level rules requiring transparency and prohibiting blocking and unreasonable discrimination from ISPs like Time Warner, Comcast, or AT&T. The goal of this order was to protect Internet openness, as some ISPs were starting to throttle websites or limit access unless customers or companies would pay them a toll or fee. The FCC’s rulings were challenged in court, and in January of 2014 the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia circuit upheld the transparency rule, but vacated the no-blocking and no-unreasonable-discrimination rules. The court then invited the FCC to act to preserve a free and open Internet, which is what is currently underway.
What Would Happen Without Net Neutrality?
Without net neutrality your Internet Service Provider could block or slow down your online content depending on what websites or applications they prefer. For example, Comcast might speed up your access to NBC.com since they own a majority stake in them, while also slowing down or blocking your access to ABC.com or CBS.com since they are competitors of NBC. An ISP could charge Netflix a fee for carrying online videos of its network to ensure that users will have access. While these situations are hypothetical, there have been real instances in the past few years of ISPs abusing their power.
Back in February 2014, Comcast and Netflix reached an agreement where it is estimated that Netflix is paying anywhere between $25 million and $50 million a year to ensure that quality content reaches their users in a timely manner. The problem with this is that ultimately this fee will be passed on to the individual users, causing their subscription rates to increase. In 2012, AT&T announced that it would block FaceTime, Apple’s mobile video chat function, from all devices (cell phones, laptops, tablets) unless the customer purchased a family plan, which is more expensive. Public interest groups filed a complaint with the FCC saying that it violated net neutrality, and in 2013, the company began unblocking the application.
Without net neutrality, the possibility of an ISP throttling or blocking content is a reality that will impact an individuals experience on the web. Additionally the increased cost to both companies and consumers is very real.
What is President Obama’s Plan?
Contrary to what Sen. Ted Cruz would like people to believe, the President’s plan does not put the government in charge of pricing or allow the government to determine the speed of the Internet. What the end goal of President’s plan is to stop ISPs from slowing service down and is asking the companies to treat all of their customers fairly. The plan is outlined as follows:
- Classify Internet service under Title II of the Telecommunications Act while at the same time forbearing them from rate regulation and other provisions less relevant to broadband services
- Title II regulations ensure common carriers of wired telephone service treat consumers equally and share their infrastructure by leasing it to smaller companies. It also requires companies to keep customer information private and offer “reasonable charges” for services, among a list of other thing.
- No Blocking
- If a consumer requests access to a website or service, and the content is legal, your ISP should not be permitted to block it. That way every player – not just those commercially affiliated with an ISP – gets a fair shot at your business.
- No Throttling
- ISPs should not be able to intentionally slow down some content or speed up other – through a process often called “throttling” – based on the type of service or your ISP’s preferences.
- Increased Transparency
- The connection between consumers and ISPs – the so-called “last mile” – is not the only place some sites might get special treatment. The president is asking the FCC to make full use of the transparency authorities the court recently upheld, and if necessary to apply net neutrality rules to points of interconnection between the ISP and the rest of the Internet.
- No Paid Prioritization
- Simply put: No service should be stuck in a “slow lane” because it does not pay a fee. That kind of gatekeeping would undermine the level playing field essential to the Internet’s growth. The president is asking for an explicit ban on paid prioritization and any other restriction that has a similar effect.
Why is This Important?
According to The Open Internet (www.theopeninter.net), a project created to promote net neutrality and the consequences associated with disbanding it, there are seven reasons why enforcing net neutrality is one of the greatest issues facing our country today:
- A free and open internet is the single greatest technology of our time, and control should not be at the mercy of corporations.
- A free and open internet stimulates ISP competition.
- A free and open internet helps prevent unfair pricing practices.
- A free and open internet promotes innovation.
- A free and open internet promotes the spread of ideas.
- A free and open internet drives entrepreneurship.
- A free and open internet protects freedom of speech.
“More than any other invention of our time, the Internet has unlocked possibilities we could just barely imagine a generation ago. And here’s a big reason we’ve seen such incredible growth and innovation: Most Internet providers have treated Internet traffic equally. That’s a principle known as ‘net neutrality’ — and it says that an entrepreneur’s fledgling company should have the same chance to succeed as established corporations, and that access to a high school student’s blog shouldn’t be unfairly slowed down to make way for advertisers with more money.” – President Obama