So, you may have heard about the current FCC leadership's eagerness to remove all net-neutrality regulation, but - if my recent research has proven anything - you probably don't have a firm grip on (1) what "net-neutrality" is, (2) why it's such a big deal, and (3) what you might want to do about it if you're a US citizen. Here's my attempt at explaining all three:
So, I think the easiest way to explain net neutrality is to start by breaking down the term itself. Let's look at "net first:
"Net" means networks, those webs of connections and systems that, when multiplied millions of times over, make up what is widely referred to as "the internet." Much like the interstate highway system is made of multiple individual roads, the internet is made of multiple individual networks. When combined, these networks' openness allows any "bit" (the smallest denomination of information/data) to get from one point on the internet to another by passing over many individual networks - and having to play by each of those networks' rules when doing so. Such rules could include travelling at the network's chosen speed, having waiting its turn to travel across a network, or even outright blocking. (Note that networks that block bits from passing aren't very useful for internet routing and tend to eventually be ignored by data traffic. This is what's behind the John Gilmore's geek-famous quote, "The 'net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.")
"Neutrality" in this context refers to an indifference about both the type of data that "bit" we mentioned above is part of and where it originally came from. Is it part of a Netflix video? No worries. A part of an email to your mom? Who cares. A part of your band's newest single? So what. To a truly neutral network, a bit is a bit is a bit.
And therein lies the technical side of the current controversy. When the internet was first being built, the networks which comprised it pretty much defaulted to being open in a symbiotic kind of way. Kind of like, "I'll transport your bits of data if you transport mine." Network owners often charged for access to their networks, but once you paid a network for your bits to have a certain level of access, that network would pass any bit you handed them at that level. This model persists today, which is why, if you're reading this, either you, your workplace, or your location pays an ISP ("internet service provider") for internet access - i.e. access to ship bits back and forth across their network.
You might have never thought about this, but ISPs also have ISPs: I'm a Spectrum customer at my house, so my bits go first to Spectrum's network, then get passed to whatever networks are upstream from them. Ditto for T-Mobile, who transports my cellular data's bits. Spectrum and T-Mobile have contracts with other companies (many of which you've probably never heard of because they don't do business at the consumer level) who both pay them and get paid by them for network access.
Having the networks that transport the data that you (as an ISP customer) consume and produce be "neutral" to data type has long been seen as a benefit by internet users. Access to neutral networks allows you to take in other people's data (binge-watch Netflix, stream Spotify, get messages and email) and create your own (posting to Instagram, backing up your important data online, or perhaps that online cooking show you're always thinking about starting) all for the same amount of money and access you already pay for. Want to start a podcast? Awesome! You can do it over the internet connection you already have and your audience can listen to it over the connection they already have.
So what's the problem? Well, the internet started as open and neutral, but there's nothing to say that it has to stay that way. When the internet began, the individual networks were mainly owned and operated by government research agencies and institutes of higher learning. For the most part, they enjoyed the open transfer of information this new invention allowed.
Fast forward to today. All of the tremendous growth of the internet has been supported by the contracts and arrangements of neutral networks passing around bits at agreed upon speeds and prices. Some network operators, however, are dropping their neutrality and beginning to favor certain types of data - and thereby disfavoring other types. This is potentially a big problem for innovation and growth online. Stay with me here...we're nearing the end of my "brief" explanation.
T-Mobile, my beloved cell provider of almost ten years, has recently begun offering their "Binge On" program, which makes the data bits from certain popular content sources (Amazon, Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, etc.) NOT count against the monthly data allotment of my contract. Their network is certainly no longer neutral, but that's awesome, right? For me the consumer, that means I basically get free data. Yay!
But what about the producers out there that aren't on the popular, established sources? What about the next Netflix or Hulu that someone is working on inventing right now? Their content doesn't get this preferential treatment and their potential audiences might not ever see it. Their business model depends on the deals of ISPs and network operators that they don't directly do business with. Yay?
But wait - maybe those new producers could start doing business with their audience's ISPs. The network operators between them and their audiences would happily favor their bits - for the right price. Yes, in a world without net neutrality, not only would the next Netflix have to pay their own ISP for their data's access to the internet, they might also have to pay all the networks in between for access to their networks, putting them at a serious financial handicap and doing a bang-up job at stifling innovation and competition by protecting the already established content producers.
If you're reading this on my blog, then you know I am also a content producer. I pay Spectrum for internet access at my house and I pay Squarespace a yearly fee to host this site and provide it to you. If I had to also pay to raise the level of favor for these bits across all the networks from me to you, I couldn't afford it. You wouldn't be reading these words, nor probably the words on any of the other, much better educational blogs that you read. Definitely, not yay.
The neutrality concept, that default indifference to data type, is where the regulatory controversy lies. Should network operators be allowed to triple-dip, charging producers, neighboring networks, and consumers to favor certain data and thereby changing one of the fundamental practices of the internet? Should someone like a government step in and apply regulation to protect good ol' capitalistic competition?
Of course, like everything else nowadays, there's also politics to account for. Back in 2014, the FCC under chairman Tom Wheeler made a proposal to make it easier for companies to pay for favor across networks. The public's backlash to these rules were sufficient to cause the FCC to rethink their plan. Millions of individual citizens and hundreds of internet companies - including Google, Microsoft, eBay, and Facebook - wrote to the FCC that it was important to them that the open internet be protected. Some equated the lack of net-neutrality as a form of censorship. Others painted the frightening (to me) picture of tiers of internet "packages" (not unlike TV packages) that offered access to a small subsection of web sites and services for a base price with the ability to pay more to access more sites.
In order to protect the internet's neutrality, the FCC had to change the official classification of internet access as a utility, which allowed it to be regulated under current law. Depending on your political viewpoint, this was seen as a either a gross overreach of governmental control or a great day when the American democracy followed the will of the people. (To be completely transparent to you, my dear reader, I am in the latter camp. In case it wasn't obvious...)
The new Republican-led FCC under Chairman Ajit Pai (who voted against the earlier pro-net-neutrality reclassification in 2015) has made its feelings on the issue of net neutrality clear, despite the outpouring of public sentiment just two short years ago. Pai has closed the investigation into whether programs like T-Mobile's "Binge On" and others violate the Wheeler FCC's net-neutrality regulations and said that he believes that net neutrality's "days are numbered." Earlier this month, the FCC officially voted (along party lines, of course) to begin dismantling the existing net-neutrality protective regulations.
The next step in this process is to collect, once again, public comment on their plan. This is where we are now. So far, comments have been overwhelmingly against undoing the protections of net neutrality, but the comment collection process has been complicated by anti-regulation forces spamming the FCC with identical messages that impersonated the names of people whose information was leaked in recent data breaches of unrelated online services. You can use this handy site to search the FCC comments for your name to see if you've been impersonated.
If you'd like register your comment to the FCC on the topic of net neutrality, you can do so at their site, under the brilliantly biased name of the proposal: restoring internet freedom. (HINT: click on "Express" to file your comment)
As always, thanks for reading!