Understanding Net Neutrality

By James T. Cains

“All data is created equal.” That paraphrase of the U.S. Declaration of Independence is the key idea behind net neutrality, also called Internet or network neutrality. Proponents of net neutrality believe that governments, media companies, and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should not discriminate against or charge different service fees based on the type of data being transmitted over the Internet.

Those in favor of net neutrality say that whether you are using email, downloading music files, or watching movies from your favorite streaming media service, you should pay the same fees regardless. And, you should not be subjected to lower download speeds (also called throttling) for legal services.

Why net neutrality is a hot issue

The battle over net neutrality has been fought since the earliest days of the Internet, between those who believe in the concept of an “open Internet” and corporations who seek to profit from the Internet. In early 2014, the issue heated up when a federal appeals court ruled that the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) does not have the authority to enforce existing rules that prevent ISPs from favoring certain companies that send data over the Internet. In response, the FCC chair, Tom Wheeler, proposed a new set of rules that would allow ISPs to charge for “priority access” to their networks — in essence, creating an Internet fast lane for a company that pays for it.

Internet neutrality advocates oppose an accelerated access option, because they say a tiered system would give the ISPs unfair power over companies who use the Internet to deliver their services. Lane speeds also would create an imbalance in user experience. For example, if a certain media streaming service pays an ISP for priority access, then watching a movie from that service using that ISP would be a great experience. But what if you don’t use that ISP? You may be subject to lower download speeds, even though you’re a subscriber to the service. Also, if you try to stream from a service that does not pay for priority access, your experience may be significantly degraded.

To support an open marketplace, net neutrality advocates are seeking to get the FCC to reclassify broadband Internet as a telecommunications service and make ISPs subject to the same rules that govern phone companies. These rules do not allow for discrimination.

The argument for net neutrality

Net neutrality proponents range from consumer advocate and human rights organizations to major online and technology companies. They base their arguments on the idea of an “open Internet,” in which people face no restrictions on what they can access over the Internet — except for what local governments may prohibit, such as illegal file sharing. Advocates say that users should encounter no upload and download speed limits based on what they are accessing, within the confines of the connection rates that consumers pay for. Supporters believe that this promotes the Internet as a “free market,” which provides a level playing field for companies to compete for customers and allows start-up companies to pursue new customers without restriction or unfair disadvantage.

Net neutrality supporters also are concerned about possible censorship, increased monitoring, and the financial impact on consumers. Without net neutrality, ISPs would be able to decide what users can access (even legal services), including competitors services or criticism of their own services. Also, ISPs could monitor everything people do on the Internet and sell or user that information as they see fit. And, those in favor of network neutrality believe that the higher costs of priority access may ultimately be passed onto consumers.

The argument against net neutrality

Opponents of net neutrality include the ISPs, networking hardware companies, and pro-market advocacy groups. They believe that net neutrality will stifle innovation and investment, arguing that increased revenue from higher-bandwidth services will allow ISPs to invest in broadband infrastructure to bring broadband to more customers. In other words, net neutrality offers no incentive for these companies to invest in advanced networks.

Another concern for net neutrality opponents is the availability of existing bandwidth. Internet traffic has increased dramatically in recent years, largely because of the availability of streaming music and video services. The ISPs were not ready for such a significant increase in bandwidth usage. Opponents believe that the revenue brought in by higher-bandwidth services will allow ISPs to build more advanced networks to handle increased bandwidth needs.

Where net neutrality stands now

As of this writing, net neutrality is at a major crossroads, especially after the recent rulings. The FCC asked the public what they thought, and 3.7 million comments were submitted. A recent study of a portion of those comments found that less than 1 percent opposed net neutrality. President Barack Obama has also issued statements in favor of net neutrality. Proponents continue to lobby for the FCC to classify broadband as a telecommunications service, while opponents continue to lobby the FCC against net neutrality enforcement, using their arguments for innovation, investment, and bandwidth availability as their cornerstones. The FCC is expected to make a decision in the coming months.