Net neutrality in a nutshell: Life without an open internet
Imagine a world where the Internet is like cable television.
Imagine that instead of being able to access any website, users have to buy websites in packages, like sports channels or HBO. They would have to pay an extra fee on top of their regular Internet plan to have access to sites like YouTube, Twitter or Facebook.
This is still a far-off future, but if Internet service providers like Comcast or Verizon FiOS have their way, this could be the new world.
The practice of net neutrality stands in the way of such abuse.
Net neutrality is one of the most important issues that will ever face the current student generation.
Why? Well, who has not used the Internet? Net neutrality is an intrinsic part of the philosophy behind the Web. It is is also referred to as network neutrality, Internet neutrality or having an “open Internet.”
The Federal Communications Commission defines an open Internet as a level playing field where consumers can make their own choices about what applications and services to use, and where consumers are free to decide what content they want to access, create or share with others.
Basically, net neutrality is the principle that all information is equal. It states that no one — not the government or even the companies that provide access to the Internet — can control or filter the information that the Web delivers.
But the big ISPs are afraid of net neutrality. They want to keep the power in their hands, not in the people’s. They’re scared of becoming “dumb pipes,” nothing more than a way for you to get online. They want to keep acting as the middleman between you and the Internet — and they want you to pay them for it.
And because they’re already the ones who provide the access to the Internet, they’re in a particularly advantageous position to control that access.
This could prove disastrous. In February, Netflix, a company that many college students hold close to their hearts, was more or less forced to pay Comcast, one of the nation’s largest ISPs, an undisclosed sum of money.
According to Netflix’s ISP report card for February, Comcast’s average streaming speeds noticeably decreased, while almost every other provider’s stayed the same. Netflix needed to pay Comcast to ensure Netflix’s high traffic did not take up too much of Comcast’s overall bandwidth.
In other words, Comcast has highways with a particular number of lanes. Netflix is like an SUV, taking up more space than the average car. Because of that, Comcast wants Netflix to pay them just to drive on the same roads they used to drive on for free.
But this money does not give Netflix its own, dedicated SUV lane. It just lets them drive on the same road as everyone else.
Big companies like Netflix can afford to do this. What about smaller companies? What about startups? If the Internet continues down this track, the only way to have a reliable Internet connection could be for companies to “bribe” ISPs, and not every business can afford to do that.
This potentially opens the door to all kinds of ISP debauchery.
The FCC, the government agency that monitors public communications, no longer has the power to regulate Internet content or services. It’s worth noting that the FCC did have this power in the past, but that they recently lost a court ruling that destroyed their open Internet rules.
The regulatory gap that this creates could enable cable companies to do some pretty terrible things.
At the end of the day, it comes down to this: The Internet is a utility, just like electricity and water and telephones. The Internet is no longer a luxury — it is a necessary part of modern life.
The Internet is not a virtual world separate from real life. As of 2014, the Internet is symbiotically entwined into day-to-day activities and communication.
Think about going back to life before the Internet as you know it — what would it be like to register for classes over the phone instead of online with WebReg? Imagine paying bills without the Internet. Imagine staying in touch with friends and family without it.
If the uncertain future of the Internet seems scary, do some research. A Google search for “net neutrality” returns thousands of informative results and ways to make a difference. A great, understandable and informative place to start is Nilay Patel’s “The Internet is F-----” report in The Verge magazine.
The wheels are in motion, and the open Internet is in trouble. Netflix paying off Comcast is a dangerously bad precedent that could become the norm for Web companies.
But it’s not too late. One of the best ways to bring attention to the problem is calling or emailing local and state representatives. Even better — email Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the FCC. Speak out, and together this generation can keep the Internet open for everyone.
Tyler Gold is an intern for The Verge and a junior majoring in information technology and informatics. Got a story for Tech Tuesday or just want to chat? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @tylergold on Twitter to get in touch.