Net Neutrality: What is Net Neutrality and Why You Should Care

By:  Robert Bryson and Maryam Karimi

Network Neutrality (or “Net Neutrality”) is a rule adopted by the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) to prevent Internet Service Providers (“ISPs”) from slowing or blocking bandwidth to certain websites and/or data, and to ensure users are charged fairly according to a base rate. ISPs are the companies responsible for laying and managing the “pipes” of the Internet. AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast are all ISPs compared to Google, Facebook, and Netflix which generate content online that uses the ISP networks.

Net Neutrality is designed to ensure that ISPs are forced to treat all Internet content the same (or “neutrally”), regardless of source. Absent Net Neutrality, ISPs would be able to throttle access to by creating “fast lanes” and “slow lanes” for different websites. Furthermore, some ISPs are owned by parent companies that produce Internet content therefore, ISPs are incentivized to favor their parent or sister-company’s content-websites over competitors.

Data throttling is also difficult to discern. Moreover, even if a consumer found out their data was being throttled, most consumers are limited to a handful of ISPs in their area, sometimes as few as two. Thus, consumers lack the ability to “vote with their money” and cancel their service.

Finally, removing Net Neutrality allows ISPs to charge consumers and businesses different rates based on use, rather than standard “base rates” based on data speed. ISPs could, in theory (and legally), charge higher rates to start-up websites because they underperform in developing traffic. ISPs could charge consumers for access to Facebook, Google, Netflix, and Amazon. ISPs could dictate who accesses what websites and for how much.

Net Neutrality Then and Now

In 2015, Net Neutrality was established under Title II, reclassifying broadband companies as, “common carriers”. Common carriers are companies with recognized monopolies (like utilities) and are subject to government oversight via Title II. Under Title II, ISPs would be prohibited from interfering with consumer and business use of websites and data.

On May 18, 2017, the FCC, under Chairman Ajit Pai, voted to begin the process to rewrite Net Neutrality (i.e. withdraw the rule). The revocation of Net Neutrality will reshape how the Internet operates for both consumers and companies.

Why You Should Care About Net Neutrality

Aside from consumer rights, Net Neutrality also ensures a free and open Internet that allows anyone with a computer to voice their opinion. Sometimes unfettered free speech as unintended consequences, such as vitriolic discourse during every Presidential election. However, it is better for society to confront these issues rather than rely on a cabal of corporations to dictate what speech is worthy (or supported by enough money) to reach wider audiences.

Everyone who uses the Internet will be affected and should be concerned by the removal of protections for Net Neutrality.

Absent mandatory neutrality rules, ISPs could charge consumers based on the websites they visit, the pictures they see, and the streaming services they utilize. ISPs could also charge higher rates to companies with more traffic, such as Netflix, Google, and Facebook. ISPs could even block access to websites that can’t pay these higher fees. Finally, consider the big picture, ISPs could act as censors, dictating what information is provided to which Americans and at what speed. ISPs could decide to limit unfavorable news coverage of their activities. ISPs could favor traffic to certain candidates for Senate, the House, or even the Presidency over others.

The end of Net Neutrality doesn’t mean every dire scenario posited in this piece will come true, it simply means that, if Comcast wanted to, it could.

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