What is net neutrality?


Should it make a difference for your Internet Service Provider whether you’re browsing your timeline on Facebook, reading your emails in Gmail, or reading the latest post on TechTalks? According to net neutrality, it shouldn’t.

Net neutrality is the principle that rules ISPs should treat all internet traffic equally and avoid playing favorites, throttling, blocking or providing paid prioritizations. What does that all mean? We’ll get there in a minute.

In the past years, as the internet has transformed from being a luxury to a vital commodity, net neutrality, which is also referred to as “open internet” and “internet freedom,” has become a thorny issue in the U.S. The debate has pitted several broadband and telecom giants such as AT&T and Comcast against huge content corporations such as Google and Facebook.

While the battle is currently being played out in the U.S., the outcome can set a precedent that will propagate to other countries and regions. Here’s what you need to know and why you should care.

What is throttling, blocking and paid prioritization?

As the gatekeeper of internet traffic, ISPs hold quite a lot of power. Let’s say a huge broadband company owns a streaming service that rivals with YouTube or Netflix. It would be within its economic interests to slow down or “throttle” those services to downgrade the experience and encourage users to use its own service.

A more extreme measure would be to block access to rival services altogether and make its own the only available streaming service. In a hypothetical scenario, your ISP will provide you with a default, stripped down version of the internet and require you to pay a premium if you want to have access to the blocked services.

Another measure that might undermine net neutrality is “paid prioritization,” in which a company cuts a deal with ISPs to get a “fast lane,” or prioritized traffic, on its service to the detriment of its competitors.

What is Title II classification?

In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission voted to classify broadband carriers as “common carriers” under Title II of the 1934 Communications Act. This would give the FCC legal authority to enforce open internet rules.

Title II states that common carriers can’t “make any unjust or unreasonable discrimination in charges, practices, classifications, regulations, facilities, or services.” This means that FCC could hold ISPs to hold them to account and penalize them for undermining net neutrality principles.

In 2017, under the new leadership, FCC decided to repeal that decision and remove the Title II classification, effectively putting the burden of net neutrality on the ISPs themselves. This issue has been at the heart of a months-long showdown between net neutrality advocacy groups and the FCC.

Who’s in favor of and against net neutrality

While at its heart, net neutrality is a simple concept, opinion on the issue is highly politicized. Both sides of the divide claim to encourage competition and investment growth. But behind the arguments are more complicated interests.

The opponents of net neutrality claim that oversight and government regulation will undermine competition and innovation by tying the hands of the companies. They believe that ISPs should be trusted to implement open internet rules by themselves. But ISPs already have a track record of undermining net neutrality when left to their own devices, which means they will only make it worse without an adult in the room.

Also, investment in broadband companies has remained steady and their stocks has continued to rise in value in spite of net neutrality rules, which means that open internet is no threat to their business.

They also dismiss the concerns of net neutrality advocates as being hypothetical. I don’t know about you, but I would rather prevent the hypothetical than see it turn into reality before reacting to it.

On the other hand, proponents of net neutrality argue that when users pay for internet connectivity, they should gain access to all of it, not a curated version of it. They also claim that paid prioritization will undermine competition against smaller companies, who will have a hard time competing with larger companies in bidding for better traffic.

Denelle Dixon, Mozilla Chief Legal and Business Officer and a vocal supporter of net neutrality, says net neutrality is crucial to the future of the internet because it “prohibits ISPs from engaging in prioritization, blocking or throttling of content and services online. As a result, net neutrality serves to enable free speech, competition, innovation and user choice online.”

So far so good. But ironically, among those who back this argument are giants such as Google, Facebook and Amazon, companies that have been killing competition for years and have deep-enough pockets to make them the winners of any paid prioritization competition.

These companies already have so many other footholds into consumers’ lives that they wouldn’t need paid prioritization to eliminate upstarts from the competition. Facebook’s imitation of the features of Snapchat, which in its own right is not a small company, is just one such examples.

In a statement, video streaming giant Netflix said, “Netflix’s position remains the same: we support strong net neutrality protections, even if we are at less risk because of our popularity. For years, we have been supporting through the Internet Association, and earlier this year, we outlined our support in our Q4 2016 earnings letter. There are other companies for whom this is a bigger issue, and we’re joining this day of action to ensure the next Netflix has a fair shot to go the distance.”

In this light, paid prioritization can be to the detriment of the bigger companies, because smaller companies would find an opportunity to pay up and speed past the big players, which in turn would have to make a higher bid and incur more costs to get back the audience they already have.

(Disclaimer: I think paid prioritization is a stupid thing and I’m in total favor of net neutrality. But I just hate it when big tech companies try to feign fairness and support for the smaller companies that they’re constantly crushing. They ruin it for all the honest supporters.)

Final thoughts

As the internet becomes an inherent part of everyone’s lives, net neutrality will become crucial. But it is a really complicated issue, both politically and technically. However the debate turns out in the next few days and months will be important for the future of the internet.

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