What is Net Neutrality and Why Should I Care?

What would you do if you were connected to the Internet? I mean literally connected to the Internet. What if every idea you had, every sentence you typed, the way you structured your language, and the words you used was recorded. Your face too, with every image uploaded to social media and your emotions, codified by emoji. Imagine if the “you” you thought you were — the private individual with your own thoughts, feelings, and whims — was actually not “you” anymore but a collection of information or data that was instead owned by the Internet. Sounds like something out of a sci-fi novel, doesn’t it? Luckily, you cannot belong to the Internet. But the reality of a free and open Internet is again up for debate. 

What is net Neutrality and why should I care?

Net neutrality is based on the idea that the Internet is a free and open network accessible to everyone. At the moment it’s free to use but in the United States, we pay for the way we connect to it, via broadband, or for the amount of information or data we use, via a mobile phone service plan. Net neutrality advocates, Internet Service Providers’s and the Federal Communications Commission are still trying to decide how this should be regulated. The outcome will affect how we connect to the Internet and what content we can access, which neutrality advocates argue goes against the idea of the Internet itself. 

Is net neutrality a new concept?

No, ideas underpinning open communication networks have been around since the invention of the telegraph in the early 1800’s. In 1860, the U.S. federal government signed the Pacific Telegraph Act, which states that “messages received from any individual, company, or corporation, or from any telegraph lines connecting with this line at either of its termini, shall be impartially transmitted in the order of their reception...” In 2003, Columbia Law Professor Tim Wu coined the term net neutrality in relation to how we should send and receive messages over the Internet. 

Isn’t the idea of neutrality on the Internet misleading?

Yes. The Internet is a series of interconnected networks or highways and the Web is the language that allows content to move around the Internet. Technically, information doesn’t flow freely across the Internet. Companies like Google and Yahoo have certain languages or rules called algorithms that determine where each website ranks in its search results. What you’re getting back isn’t a random selection of everything available on the Internet but what the search engine deems the best results, usually the most popular.

Wasn’t the Web always supposed to be free and open to everyone?

Yes. In 1989, Computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee created the Web as an open platform for anyone to create, say or do anything they want to, except when it comes to drug dealing, child pornography or terrorism. It still operates without a central governing body today. 

What changed?

In 2005, the FCC adopted Open Internet Order principles to ensure all information accessed and exchanged across the Internet was treated equally. Five years later, Comcast took them to court arguing against their ability to do this based on a technicality. Comcast won and the FCC was forced to redefine its Open Internet rules. The FCC tried to reclassify ISP’s as telecommunication services, making them public utilities like gas or water and therefore governable under law. It lost again and in 2014 proposed two tiers or lanes of Internet access. Since one of those tiers would provide faster service for customers who could afford to pay for it, the FCC inflamed the neutrality debate. In 2015, the Open Internet Order was passed effectively banning Internet "fast lanes" and classifying ISP’s as telecommunication services under Title II of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, making them public utilities governable under law. Yesterday, the was debate ignited yet again with the current FCC chairman suggesting net neutrality rules might be rolled back as soon as next month. 

What would two tiers or lanes of Internet access allow ISP’s to do?

This two-lane system could extend to all types of content, allowing ISP’s to create tiered services or packages similar to those on cable TV. They might also be able to favor a service in which they have an economic interest. According to judge Dave Tatel, who spoke at Verizon’s 2014 appeal of the FCC’s Open Internet rules, Comcast could limit access the New York Times website if it wanted to spike traffic to NBC’s website, a company it owns, for instance. “It [could also] degrade the quality of the connection to a search website like Bing if a competitor like Google paid for prioritized access,” he said.  

How would this change how I use the Web?

You would have to wait longer to see content from creators who could not pay for priority access to the faster lane. Netflix might be able to afford this but your neighbor, who likes sharing his songs on YouTube, may not. His videos would take longer to load than the latest blockbuster, dashing his hopes at becoming the next Justin Bieber. You might also have to choose between two different services based on price. It might be more expensive to use Twitter then Ello, for instance, and the next Mark Zuckerberg or Facebook would remain unknown.  

Should we worry about what happens to our private data online?

Where does digital information come from and where does all the data that we’re constantly typing, uploading, and sharing actually go? The smartphone and computer are hyper-connected, constantly transmitting and receiving, objects. The data we’re inputting exists in reality and in real-time. Just because we can’t see it once it’s entered the digital void doesn’t mean it’s not there — and what are we really agreeing to when we accept the fine print in those terms and conditions? “You” might not be able to belong to the Internet but the data you upload does. It's constantly being stored, bought, and sold by a myriad of institutions and organizations. We’re all connected to the pipes through which this data is accessed. The future is now… The Matrix, anyone?