What is Net Neutrality and Why Should Anyone Care?

No entry sign, courtesy of Elliot Brown on Flickr

On the 14th of this month, the US Court of Appeals for DC Circuit issued a ruling in a case brought by Verizon against the Federal Communications Commission. Verizon was challenging the FCC's attempt to "compel broadband providers to treat all Internet traffic the same regardless of source," as the ruling put it - what is popularly known as "net neutrality." Verizon won. Mostly.

Back in 2010, the FCC adopted the Open Internet Order - a set of rules designed to provide a basic framework for internet service providers (ISPs). It banned content blocking (where an ISP simply blocks subscriber's access to a specific site or type of data) and charging content providers for access to their network (think Comcast charging Netflix to provide its service to Comcast internet subscribers). It was vague, however, on concepts like network management and packet discrimination - tools that ISPs can use to to slow or speed up internet traffic in certain places and block or slow certain types of traffic (like peer-to-peer or FTP). It said network management had to be "reasonable" and transparent - meaning that your ISP should have to tell you if it's blocking your torrent, apparently - but "reasonable" means different things to different people.

The idea was to establish some basic level of "net neutrality," the idea that all traffic on the web should be treated equally by ISPs, with no preferential or punitive barriers toward any specific piece of content or data. From what I've read, the Circuit Court's ruling said that the FCC can't impose regulations on ISPs - it can't impose rules that would guarantee net neutrality - because the Open Internet Order didn't classify broadband internet providers as "common carriers".  A common carrier is a provider of a goods or services who is subject to regulation by the government and provides their services to the public impartially; they can't refuse services to anyone who can pay and they can't give preference to certain clients. Phone and cable companies are common carriers, but the Open Internet Order didn't take the step of formally naming ISPs as common carriers, due in large part from heavy lobbying from the ISPs themselves.

What's this mean for you? Without protections against preferential network access, Verizon (or Comcast or any ISP) could sign contracts with content providers (like Netflix) providing them preferential treatment on their network. That would mean that if you streamed a movie on Netflix, it would load faster than, say, a YouTube video or Amazon's on-demand viewing service. It has the potential to turn the internet into a pay-to-play world - which would not only limit consumer choice but squash innovation. Small startups who would compete with Netflix or Amazon wouldn't be able to afford to pay ISPs for access to their networks, meaning we'd never get to see the next Facebook or Twitter because they'd be priced out of the internet.

I'm definitely biased - I work at a place that lets you walk out the door with books for free and provides free access to the internet for anyone who walks in the door, so I'm obviously going to lean towards making all information available for free for everyone all the time (and probably overeager to see censorship) - but I'm concerned that this latest ruling has the potential to change the internet into TV: a place where those who have the money can tell stories and report news, but access to anyone else is limited.

We're not there yet, of course. The court's ruling left parts of the Open Internet Order standing and stated that the FCC has a "general authority" to regulate broadband internet providers. Some of the ruling can even be read as a roadmap for the FCC to follow to be able to impose real net neutrality. That, however, would require the FCC to act in the face of staunch opposition from ISPs.

What do you think? What role should government have in regulating the internet? Do ISPs have any responsibilities to the public at large? Is net neutrality really important or just an empty slogan?

Want some extra reading? The ruling is here, and there was a great Ars Technica article about how the FCC brought this upon itself by making the Open Internet Order too vague. You could also check out these responses to the ruling from The Atlantic, Tech Republic and CNET, as well as Verizon's response to the ruling.

Photo courtesy of Elliot Brown, via Flickr.


Sounds like you have got a good exmple but every one cant understand it. Can you please elaborate?
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So my biggest concern is that once preferential treatment is made the consumer loses what was once the beauty of the internet. Infinite information available to the user paying for the access to the infinite landscape. Now the landscape will obviously change drastically. Think SEO (search engine optimization), currently unless you have someone managing your SEO you won't even pull up the correct information in Google or Yahoo even if you type it in verbatim. The internet will begin to produce results of only the companies that pay the largest sums to make sure what they want to broadcast to their clients is fine tuned and naturally designed to produce results that promote consumerism. I suppose the silver lining to all of this is the new need for a program/er that will pull the 'actual' results of the internet up and clone IP addresses so that people can use the internet the way it was intended to be used. Ahh Capitalism, can't live with it and it always wins.

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