Net neutrality — what is it and how does it affect you?

Net+neutrality%2C+or+the+principle+that+all+internet+traffic+should+be+treated+equally%2C+has+sparked+a+large+debate+in+the+United+States.

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Net neutrality, or the principle that all internet traffic should be treated equally, has sparked a large debate in the United States.

Paul Watkins, Science & Technology Editor

You may have heard news about an idea called Net Neutrality, with fierce debate on either side about how it will impact the Internet positively or negatively. But what exactly is this idea? How will it affect SPA, and, more importantly, how will it affect you?

Put simply, the idea of net neutrality is that all data is treated equally by Internet service providers, whether it be streaming video or audio, large files, or even (and controversially) illegal material.

Think of it in terms of an analogy: you buy two books, one from a small bookseller, and one from Amazon. You order them at equal times and are shipped using the same rate from the same shipper. A couple days later, a truck pulls up at your house and the delivery man steps up to your door and knocks. Excited to read your new books, you open the door only to find that the delivery man is tearing apart  your packages to see what you’ve ordered and from whom. As you stand in your confusion, the man says that he thinks it’s awesome you’ve ordered books from his delivery service. “Great,” you say, “you must be doing good business with Amazon! You can take the extra profits to build more trucks and ship even more stuff to more places!” “Yeah,” he says, “but that stuff from Amazon makes up half of my stuff to deliver, and it’s tiring going from his truck to people’s houses with that many packages. It would be easier if I just deliver this package to you now, and then I can take care of the rest later.” Before you have time to respond he leaves the first book with you and takes the Amazon package back to his truck and continues on his route. Angrily, you call the delivery company and complain, only to realize that it’s company policy to do this. Amazon would actually have to pay its shipper to provide incentive for their drivers to deliver the packages on time.

Pullquote Photo

Adopting these regulations will ultimately make the Internet a better place.”

— Science & Technology Editor, Paul Watkins

The logical answer to this situation would to have the sellers switch delivery companies to ones that value their service and that invest their profits back into their company. Capitalism works in a lot of situations, why shouldn’t it work here? Except, looking around, you find that only that particular delivery company delivers to your house because they’ve made secret deals with other delivery companies to not compete in most areas, thereby creating an artificial monopoly and an opportunity to squeeze every last penny from their paying customers who have no other option.

This is the situation many large Internet companies face, and it’s not unprecedented by any means. Netflix, responsible for an estimated 35% of all Internet traffic in the US, actually paid Comcast and Verizon for them to deliver its data on time, like the ISPs should in the first place. And if you don’t like your ISP, good luck switching. In most places in the U.S., there is only one broadband provider providing service to your house. The only alternative is to switch to DSL, often slower and unreliable, or to use a mobile network, often charging ludicrously high prices for subpar, capped data. Elsewhere, Comcast has come under fire for slowing down traffic using the BitTorrent protocol, a legal alternative to traditional file distribution. Imagine having two lamps – one made dimmer because you didn’t your electricity provider doesn’t like the light bulb you use. That sounds absurd – why shouldn’t this?

Earlier in 2014 the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled that the Open Internet Order, an FCC regulation somewhat protecting data equality, was in violation of a communications act from 1934, and that ISPs like Verizon had full control over the pipes that connect its customers to the larger Internet . This sparked a larger debate about data equality and a public campaign to lobby the FCC to adopt stricter rules to protect an open Internet . For a while, such campaigns were visible on the Internet : visits to popular sites like Tumblr or reddit for a while prompted a comment to the FCC chairman.

An important concept to grasp is the one of a Title II carrier, or a common carrier. This is essentially the same as phone or electricity lines. The company provides its services to the public, maintaining responsibility for the upkeep of its infrastructure and proper delivery, but losing responsibility for what happens, or what it delivers on that infrastructure. If conspiracy was committed using the phone lines, the phone company wouldn’t be liable in that crime because it’s a common carrier. Under data equality, so it must go for ISPs.

This week, the FCC passed strict data equality rules, classifying broadband internet as a public utility and keeping the basic protocols that govern the Internet free from abuse or monetization by ISPs.

And what happens then? If you’re a regular consumer who doesn’t care much about your ISP, not much. Everything will still work as expected, and nothing much will change. However, if you’ve been a victim of speed restricting or censorship, you can expect to see those go away. If not, your ISP is literally breaking the law.

It’s important to know that these regulations only apply to ISPs — an institution like SPA, for example, is well within its rights to restrict or censor Internet access. So no, data equality doesn’t apply to coffee shop Internet or school WiFi.

Adopting these regulations will ultimately make the Internet a better place — a place free from censorship or discrimination, a place open to free enterprise, and a place of free information to all subjects – not just the ones approved by your ISP. Preserving data equality means preserving the Internet — the Internet you know and rely on — to continue existing.