Net Neutrality and Why You Should Care

The debate about net neutrality has been around for a while.  I taught my students about it back when I was still in the Computer Science Department, during the Bush administration.  Today, finally, we’ve gotten a ruling from the Federal Communications Commission about this “controversial” subject.  But to understand the FCC ruling, we first have to understand the debate.  And that means that we have to understand what the Internet actually is.

So, what is the debate?  It’s about your access to the Internet.  The Internet was founded as a decentralized network of computers.  That’s right.  The Internet is  a network of computers.  Each of these computers provides some service.  So when you connect to the “Internet,” you are connecting to a bunch of computers.  And you ask those computers to provide you with some sort of service.  Like viewing a web page.  Or looking at your email.  Or listening to music.  Or watching a movie.  Each of these services involves sending your computer data in the form of a bunch of zeroes and ones that your computer then translates into something that you (as a human) recognize.  Some of these services involve a few zeroes and ones while others involve MANY zeroes and ones.  The Internet was founded on the idea that zeroes and ones are zeroes and ones.  That is, we should not make any distinction between THIS set of zeroes and ones and THAT set of zeroes and ones.  That’s the idea of net neutrality.

How does this relate to you and your everyday, online life?  It means that when you use your Internet Service Provider (Time Warner Cable or Netzero or Verizon or whoever) to connect to Google (or Microsoft or LL Bean or YouTube or Hulu whoever), the zeroes and ones are not discriminated.  All zeroes and ones are treated equally.  So, for example, Time Warner cannot make a deal with Microsoft to make Bing (Microsoft’s search engine) run faster than Google (Bing’s direct competitor).  And Time Warner cannot make a deal with Microsoft to charge you more to access Google than to access Bing.  AND Time Warner cannot make a deal with Microsoft to completely block your access to Google so that you MUST use Bing as a search engine.  THAT is net neutrality.

So the issue has been whether to consider the Internet to be more like a communication network or an entertainment provider.   If the Internet is about communication, then it should be regulated in the same ways that phone communication has been regulated.  Phone companies must carry all phone calls at the same rate based on distance.  In other words, they can charge you more to call California than to call the town next to you, but they can’t charge you more to call Business A than to call Business B based solely on the fact that Business A is different than Business B.   And they can’t block your call to any place.  They must carry all calls.  On the other hand, if the Internet is about entertainment, then they should be able to make deals like your cable company makes deals.  For example, my cable company, Time Warner, recently failed to come to an agreement with an ABC affiliate out of Vermont.  As a result, I no longer get that channel in my cable lineup–I cannot access that channel no matter what I do (unless I change to a cable or satellite provider that gives me that access–but, of course, most cable companies have monopoly access in the towns where they provide service).  In addition, if I want access to certain channels, my cable company may charge me more.  I have access to The Sundance Channel but I don’t have access to the Independent Film Channel because I pay at the level that gives me Sundance but I don’t pay at the level that gives me IFC.

So the question has been, is the Internet a communication network (like phones) or an entertainment network (like cable TV)?  Another way to ask this question is: should Internet service provision be regulated to prevent differential access to certain sites?   Many Republicans have argued that deregulation, allowing companies to do whatever they want, promotes competition and is therefore good for consumers.  And so they have argued that we should allow Internet Service Providers to charge different amounts for different kinds of access and to actually block access to certain sites.  I generally believe that consumers are best served by rules that promote net neutrality.  So I have argued for a long time that the FCC should make rules that prevent situations such as what happened with my ABC affiliate and my cable TV provider.

So today, the FCC ruled in favor of net neutrality.  THIS is a good thing (IMHO) for consumers–and THAT is why you should care about this.  Some Republicans have called this ruling “regulatory hubris.”  Many on the other side of the debate have also decried this ruling because it doesn’t go far enough in its regulations.  The ruling explicitly singles out cell phone operating systems, such as Android, as the reason that the FCC was softening its rules for net neutrality on wireless networks.  This is defintely something that consumers need to pay attention to.

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