Net Neutrality Explained (And Why You Should Care)

(I apologize ahead of time for the video. I figured out how to fix the sync issue after the fact.)

Introduction

Hi, I’m Brian Reich.  I’m an IT guy at a local tech school, part-time IT consultant.  I’m not famous in my field, I’m not a community leader, and I’m not very good at speaking up.  But helping people that don’t understand technology come to terms with it is a big part of my job, so I feel duty-bound to help everyone understand Net Neutrality and why they should be mad as Hell about it.

What’s Net Neutrality

Net Neutrality is the principle that Internet Service Providers like Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, or Windstream have to treat all data the same no regardless of that data’s purpose, where it came from, or where it’s going.  Basically if I pay Verizon for a 1 meg Internet connection, under normal circumstance I should be able to use the Internet at that speed whether I’m doing work or watching Netflix.

For the last few years Internet Service Providers here in the United States have been operating under an FCC ruling stating that they can’t block lawful content or unreasonably discriminate against lawful network traffic. Can they throttle your bandwidth for downloading bootleg movies, block The Pirate Bay, or terminate your account for illegal activity? You betcha.

But can they do the same while you’re watching Netflix, or visiting a competitor’s website? Nope!

What’s Changed?

So why am I all riled up?

Let me put it this way.  Let’s say you bought a book online and you chose premium shipping.  A day later UPS calls you up and says, since that book didn’t make the UPS Book Club’s Top Ten List, they’re going to have to charge you another 5 bucks to get your package to you on time.  That wouldn’t really seem fair, would it?

Last Tuesday the DC Circuit Court determined that the FCC has no authority to enforce Net Neutrality because ISP’s aren’t considered “common carriers” like telephone and cable companies. Let’s unpack some of the legal mumbo jumbo:

A “common carrier” is just a private company that’s been given authority transports goods (goods in this case being “data”) by the government, and in return for that they need to follow the rules the government gives them. A few examples are oil and gas pipelines, telephone, and cable services.

Now for any of this to make any sense you have to be either willfully ignorant or Amish, because anyone that gets a phone bill knows that most of the companies that offer one of these services, offer all three, often on a single wire. But while their phone and cable business fall under FCC jurisdiction, they just slapped the FCC’s patties and said “hands off our Internet!”

So basically the Verizons and the Comcasts have stepped up to “Big Government” and said “hands off our Internet!”  That’s good, right?

Well, I suppose that depends on which side of the ISP’s monthly invoice you’re on, because this debate isn’t so much about keeping the Internet “free,” as it is about whose brand name is on the shackles.

Internet Providers argue that bringing the Internet under the FCC’s jurisdiction would hurt the technology by slowing growth and raising costs. And if we were talking about full regulatory powers, they might have a point.

The problem is that’s not what’s being discussed.

Up until last week the FCC was imposing a single rule on Internet Providers: you can’t block or discriminate against lawful content.  That’s leaves a lot of room to run your company the way you see fit, and by their own argument American Internet access should have been both cheap and cutting edge. Unfortunately that’s nowhere near the case.

The Truth

The truth is that most Internet Service Providers are terrible stewards of the power they’ve been given.

Have you ever heard the phrase “the myth of American exceptionalism?”  If ever that phrase were true it’s in describing our country’s communications infrastructure.  Last I checked we’re 8th in the world in terms of broadband access, lagging behind such economic titans as Latvia and the Czech Republic. (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2480850/Worldwide-broadband-speed-report-puts-UK-9TH-place.html) 8th place isn’t bad, but when you consider we’re getting a lot less and paying a lot more, you might get a little bit upset.

Where I live there are still families who have to connect with dial-up.  The Internet just isn’t made to work at those speeds anymore.  Checking your email is a chore, and doing research for school is impossible. I’m not going to sit here and pretend families are starving to death because they can’t get high-speed Internet, but their educations suffer and, in turn, their employment possibilities and earning potential as well.  Other countries see the writing on the wall.

At this point if you still think you need to rush to the aid of such mom-and-pop establishments as Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast, consider this:

Every byte that travels across the Internet has been paid for. Twice. We consumers pay for our Internet connections.  We pay a specific monthly rate for a certain amount of bandwidth (how much data you can transmit in a certain amount of time).  Websites and Internet services do the same, and it’s usually rolled into something called hosting fees.  Larger web services like YouTube or Netflix usually lease massive Internet connections, but one way or another they pay for it.

In fact the video you’re watching right now was paid for coming and going. What makes any ISP entitled to more money?

Some people here in the United States say “profit shouldn’t be a dirty word!” Well, it shouldn’t be the only word either.

Look at the amazing things that have grown on an open Internet.  Wikipedia. Kahn Academy. YouTube.  There is more human knowledge stored in those three free services than in all of the great libraries in human history combined. And under a more restrictive Internet those ideas would have died on the vine.

Finally, consider competition for a second.  Now I’m not even talking about Internet piracy, I’m talking about stuff like Netflix.  The fact that the same companies that have lobbied to have net neutrality overturned, the same companies that are the gatekeepers to the Internet also happen to offer cable television doesn’t seem a bit suspicious?

Folks like Verizon will tell you that Netflix should have to pay a premium for the massive amount of data they’re pushing out.  But again, Netflix isn’t on the Internet for free.  And you’re not able to access their site for free either.  That data has been bought and paid for twice and there’s no reason other than profiteering or stifling competition that I can see for changing a working system.

This might still all seek pretty trite, but it’s not.  The outcome of this debate affects everybody.  As far as I’m concerned, until mankind wraps its head around space travel and clean energy, the Internet is mankind’s crowning achievement.  The Internet contains the best and worst of what we are as a species.  It documents some of the vilest human beings are capable of.  But it’s also eliminated leveled the playing field and made knowledge and information accessible to everyone.

We’ve already allowed ISP’s to have us over a barrel in terms of cost and quality of service, and if we allow them to fundamentally change the way the Internet works not just here but throughout the world, we’ll be shooting our country and our species in the foot.