You may have heard about Net Neutrality in the news recently. Far from just a topic of interest to techies and Internet companies, Net Neutrality affects everyone and is an important issue to understand.
An Open Internet
Ever since the beginning of the Internet, the goal has been openness. All traffic transmitted across the Internet – websites, email, phone calls, music, video – is treated equally. The companies that control the Internet aren’t able to favor certain traffic, so that it’s not accessible or doesn’t work as well as other traffic.
Why This Matters
The economic benefits we have experienced due to the Internet is largely because of this simple concept. When someone wants to start a business on the Internet, offer some new service, or try something completely new, they have equal access as everyone else. More importantly, everyone has equal access to them.
All of the big Internet companies started out as small players, running on a single PC or server (or Mark Zuckerberg’s laptop), connected to the same Internet service as everyone else. If someone wanted to access those services, they could immediately and easily do so, as soon as that new site went online.
Internet Service Providers
What’s happening is that the large Internet Service Providers (ISPs), such as phone companies and cable providers, are looking for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to relax the rules that preserve Net Neutrality. This would allow them to favor certain traffic over other traffic. They could even prevent some Internet traffic from being accessed at all.
What Happens If Net Neutrality Goes Away
The Internet as we know will cease to exist. This doesn’t mean that it would disappear. The rules of an open Internet that have led to the Internet becoming the greatest form of communication in the history of mankind would be gone. Here’s an example.
Let’s say that you love video streaming services like Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Video. Today, you can subscribe to whatever service you wish, buy whatever content you like. These companies compete with each other on an equal playing field for your business. Today, Verizon, AT&T or Comcast can’t favor their own video services at the expense of those others. If the FCC relaxes the rules for Net Neutrality, the ISPs could make it so that if you are using their Internet service, you would only be able to access their video streaming service, or shopping site, or music service, and not access competing services. Or, they could make it so that traffic from other services is slower, which makes customers go elsewhere.
This creates an infinite number of potential conflicts. ISPs could prevent you from seeing online stores that don’t advertise with them. They could make it difficult to see websites from political candidates they don’t support. Or, they can make decisions about what content they feel is appropriate for you to look at.
There are many documented cases of ISPs doing this even with the Net Neutrality rules in place. These examples are not theoretical.
In most parts of the country, the options people have for which ISP to use are very limited, so there would be no competition. ISPs could sell access or favorable treatment for sites to the highest bidder, essentially killing competition and preventing new players from entering online markets.
The Internet Is A Commodity
Internet access is becoming just as essential to everyday life as commodities such as electricity or water. Let’s say that your local electric company wanted to start selling televisions. What would happen if they were able to design their electrical grid so that only their televisions worked with their electricity? You trust that whatever electrical device you plug into the outlets in your home will work. The Internet should always work the same way.
The Internet Is Just Beginning
As important as the Internet has becomes in our daily lives, it is still just at the beginning. The World Wide Web is less than 30 years old. Facebook started less than 15 years ago. The iPhone turns ten this year. If the full promise of the Internet is going to continue to develop over the next generation, it is crucial that the free and open Internet is preserved. This will allow the spirit of innovation and competition that has made the Internet so world-changing to continue.