Net Neutrality is becoming a hot topic in the media and the swamplands of Washington, D.C. And it’s an issue that can have a significant impact on all internet users and the way they interact with the internet in the future. So it’s important to have some understanding of what Net Neutrality is and what the controversial fight over it is all about.
Net Neutrality as a concept is a principle element of the internet from it’s point of origin. In a nutshell, the idea is that all data being transferred between two parties should not be discriminated against and should be delivered at the same speed regardless of who sent it or who is receiving it. Despite it’s rather innocuous and boring description, the adherence to this concept is very important to how the internet works.
You might think of the internet as being like a highway, where all traffic can enter or exit the roadway where and when it wants and travels at (approximately) the same speed. An internet without Net Neutrality could (though certainly not “would”) become a “company road”, where the owner/operator of the road could decide what cars are allowed to enter, where they are allowed to exit and what speed they travel based on what suits the company best, including potentially charging for better access and speed. Or even shutting out sites and providers that compete with the owner’s interests.
For the internet, Internet Service Providers (ISPs), like cable providers and telecoms, control the infrastructure for how the network connects. It is not outside the realm of possibility that those ISPs would like the opportunity to have greater control over how the network runs. They might even like to establish “tiered internets”, where they can charge additional amounts to get the ability to use the better version. And I’m not talking about connection speeds, but the actual ability to reach a site or use services like Google or Facebook or Skype. And that’s where Net Neutrality comes in.
At the moment, Net Neutrality is not law or regulation. Companies don’t necessarily have to abide by the concept, though most do most of the time. There have been a few instances of people not playing nice, but overall the system has worked pretty well so far.
As the use of the internet continues to grow, and the demands put on the network continue to grow, and the other services and products that ISPs offer get replaced by internet-based services and products (like, why get a home phone from your ISP when you can make free calls over Skype?), the implicit agreement to follow Net Neutrality ideals becomes less likely to continue. So there has been a significant push as of late for legislation that would enforce Net Neutrality.
Those in favor of legislation typically believe that doing so would prevent ISPs from creating their own tiered internets, preserving the openness of the internet, and allows for further innovation and communication. In this case, ISPs could not force sites and services to pay additional money to reach their users in a more timely fashion and ISPs could not block access to sites that provided competition for other services (like video entertainment, phone services, etc.)
Those who are against legislation typically believe that it opens the door for government regulation of the internet and limits the ISPs ability to better deliver service(s) to customers. An argument of the latter might be: not all data is equal and the ISP should be allowed to slow some data down to improve the performance of other data. If you take e-mail and web video as examples, there’s no real reason why e-mail shouldn’t be slowed down by a few seconds if it means that web video gets delivered faster. And, of course, as for the former, people fear that allowing the government to get involved in regulating the internet might lead to a less open internet in the future anyway.
Regardless of where you fall on the issue, the preservation of an open internet that encourages innovation, communication, learning and discovery is an important goal. We don’t know where the paths in front of us may lead, but we should explore them carefully and slowly so as not to lose the amazing opportunity the internet presents us with.