Today, we’re going to talk net neutrality. If you spend much time on the Internet, you’ve probably heard quite a bit about this concept over the past several weeks, in no small part because there was recent federal court ruling saying that the current enforcer of net neutrality, the FCC, can’t actually enforce it. (At least, using the Open Internet Order, the method they previously used, but more on that below). This has raised lots of concern on the web that net neutrality will completely disappear, leading to all kinds of problems.
But before we get into all that, I suppose that we need to step back a bit, and discuss:
What is Net Neutrality?
At its most basic, net neutrality means that there shouldn’t be any discrimination by internet service providers (ISPs) between different types of data on the Internet. In practical terms, this means your ISP can’t provide you with different speeds or charge you different amounts to connect to different websites. So, your ISP couldn’t give you a slower or more expensive connection to a site that they support (for financial, political or any other reasons) than to one that they don’t. You would have the same speed of connection to Google, Amazon, all political party sites, and even The Amateur Financier, regardless of the data they contain.
(You might wonder why, if this is the case, why there is such a difference in how quickly websites load. The short answer is that while your provider can’t change connection speed on your end, there are technical issues about the websites themselves that change how quickly they show up on your browser. I’ve had to deal with more than a few of them myself, and I won’t get into them again here, but there are things beyond the control of your service provider which can drastically affect your load time for given sites.)
How Would Losing Net Neutrality Affect You?
Losing the enforcement of net neutrality means that ISPs can speed up or slow down access to particular sites. As you might guess, this means that the sites that pay more for special treatment (or are owned by the ISP’s parent company) will get faster service compared to other sites. With faster service comes increased appeal to the typical consumer and thus more traffic. (Which would you prefer, the site that takes ten seconds to load each page or the site that takes only takes one?)
This has the potential to dramatically change how the Internet will function, mostly for the negative. With the ability to separate websites into bigger, higher-paying sites and smaller ones unable to pay additional fees, ISPs would have fewer qualms about offering slow service for many of the (usually newer, frequently better) sites you currently visit. If you want faster service for particular sites, you could end up paying additional fees, with certain sites gathering charges on top of what you pay simply to get online in the first place (as illustrated with this clever graphic).
This would also affect things on the website side of internet equation. There would be the need to pay higher fees for fast (or what amounts to current speed) service to their sites, increasing the cost for websites to do business. In turn, those websites would have to increase ads or membership rates to pay the fees, so you could find yourself facing a lot more costs (or even more ads) if you hope to surf the Internet at the current speed. Perhaps most important to bloggers or other small, just starting out website owners (like myself), this could lead to another major obstacle to starting and/or expanding a website, preventing many people from putting their website ideas into action.
Overall, an Internet without net neutrality would be a vastly different Internet from what we use and enjoy. At best, the provider you use could determine just how quickly you are able to access particular sites, with their allies (or those who pay up) getting faster service, nudging you towards those sites and away from whatever they oppose. At worst, we could end up with what amounts to a series of toll roads where there was once a free Internet, causing you to pay, directly or indirectly, in order to have the same service that you currently expect. Either way, it spells a vast change to how the Internet works and a complication for those small-business types who wish to start a website.
So What Happens Now?
Here’s some good news: net neutrality is far from dead. The court only ruled that the particular order being used currently by the FCC is inappropriate, not net neutrality as a general concept. As a result, there are methods of making net neutrality the law of the land again. The FCC could appeal the decision (as it was only a circuit court making the decision) or set out a new order that will (hopefully) avoid such a problem in the future. It’s also possible that other legal paths could be taken; when even the President has shown support for net neutrality, legislation is certainly an option.
But what can you do? Well, unless you happen to be on the US Appeals Court, there’s probably little you can do to directly ensure net neutrality. That said, you can contact your Representative and Senators to ensure that they know that you are highly in favor of net neutrality and willing to make it a major factor in your voting choices. (With respect to our Congresspeople, most tender to be older and less ‘hip’ to how the Internet really works; a message from their constituents about net neutrality could help them understand its importance.)
Before we go, I should, for the sake of fairness, note that there are some arguments against net neutrality, with various levels of reasonability. That said, they do lose some credibility when they are promoted primarily by those with strong connections to the ISP industry. (And of course, there are plenty of arguments for net neutrality that I haven’t fully covered in this article, so I remain more than convinced that net neutrality is the path to take.)