Perhaps you’ve heard the term net neutrality thrown around on the internet, 24-hour news cycle or even amongst friends. What does it mean, though? Net neutrality is a principle that holds that internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all data sources equally, forbidding them from discriminating by user, source, or content. In its simplest terms, for users of the web, net neutrality means that all websites you want to see are treated the same by your internet connection and that you can access them all equally easily. 8
During its rise to widespread popularity in the 1990s, the internet picked up the nickname “information superhighway,”13 which was used to describe the speed and openness of traffic on the blooming network. In the decades following the coining of that term, the internet has served as a facilitator of almost every aspect of our daily lives. Anything from paying utility bills to learning Mandarin is now easier and more accessible for everyone because of the world wide web – for now.
Fast forward to 2017, the information superhighway, once a raging torrent filled with a nearly unthinkable amount of diverse content, is weeks away from being reduced to a trickle. On Dec. 14th, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will be voting to decide whether to uphold or repeal net neutrality protections. A vote against net neutrality would lift restrictions on ISPs and allow them to filter and favor content before it ever reaches your computer.
This may be surprising or even startling to you if this is the first you’ve heard of the battle for net neutrality. However, this conflict has been raging, although almost silently, for much of the last decade. To see a visual breakdown of the timeline,click here. In order to understand what this means to you, Sycamore Education or any other person or company that relies on the internet on a daily basis, let’s take a closer look at what the internet will look like without net neutrality.
Depending on how long you’ve been using the internet, you may remember the seemingly distant ad-free past of YouTube.com. Yes, such a time did exist. Prior to 200812, YouTube was completely adless. Whether you agree with the existence and purpose of the advertisements is irrelevant here. What matters is that these ads represent a barrier between the content and its consumers.
Another such barrier is known as a paywall. Paywalls are systems designed to monetize online and other digital information by preventing visitors from accessing web sites and similar content providers without having a paid subscription.14 An increase in paywalls is unavoidable if net neutrality is removed. This is because consumer choice will be eclipsed by the ISPs’ ability to determine which content should be displayed, how much it will cost and who should be able to access it. Imagine, for a moment, if the internet were packaged in the way that resembled cable television.
Basically, end users will be forced to buy access to content packages in an a la carte fashion. What is troubling is that the FCC contends that such a setup will result in a more competitive ISP marketplace. 19. The arguments for and against net neutrality will be discussed below; before we go into that, though, let’s take a look at what the end of net neutrality would mean for small and medium-size businesses like Sycamore and many others.
The decision to focus on the plight of smaller businesses comes from the assumption that larger corporations, i.e. Netflix, Google, Facebook and so on, will likely be able to avoid the throttling that will result from a loss of net neutrality. Bandwidth throttling is a purposeful slowing of available bandwidth. In other words, and in general, it’s an intentional lowering of the “speed” that’s typically available over an Internet connection. 20 This begs the question, though, of what will happen to those unfortunate companies that cannot afford to pay the toll levied by increasingly powerful ISPs.
The changes sparked by repealing net neutrality will usher in a new era of biased subscriptions; wherein, unlimited access to webpages or content will be available only to preferred providers. All other webpages or content will require additional charges. Net neutrality advocates have long worried that these sorts of preferential offerings harm competition, and by extension, consumers, by making it harder for smaller providers to compete.
A company like Netflix or Amazon can likely shell out to sponsor data, but smaller companies don’t necessarily have the budget.21 It is imperative that the data playing field be equal in order for a small startup – remember that Amazon once fell into this category – to ever have a shot at securing their share of life-giving internet traffic in an ever-increasing digital world. Surely, though, FCC’s quest to repeal net neutrality must have some appeal if it’s made it this far, right? Let’s take a look at how viewpoints differ on the subject.
To advocates, net neutrality is the internet’s guiding principle: It preserves our right to communicate freely online.22 Any person or business, under the current internet regulations, has the same opportunity for their content to be seen by prospective end users. Net neutrality, they say, is the only way that an entrepreneur’s fledgling company can compete and succeed against an established corporation. 24 Proponents of these protections argue that if the neutral net is dissolved, the internet playing field will skew heavily in favor of ISPs, global corporates and special interest groups (SIGs).
Opponents of net neutrality protections – largely ISPs, global corporates and SIGs – posit that the current internet landscape is lacking adequate competition. Competition in what sense? Their basic argument is that government has sanctioned public utility monopolies, then uses regulatory power to pull the monopoly under their oversight. In the world of ISPs (and there are very few as I listed above), many of the large content providers (i.e. Google, Facebook, Netflix) have embedded themselves into the ISP delivery network through dedicated routers and servers, thus giving them an inherent advantage because they don’t rely on the internet backbone for content transmission.24 To opponents of net neutrality, the world wide web was never neutral and is in need of a shift to provide a more competitive market environment.
Some individuals and groups, however, believe there is merit on both sides of the argument. On the one hand, they believe that all internet traffic should be treated equally. On the other, these individuals are calling for a two-tiered internet. A two-tiered internet, i.e. the system championed by anti-net neutrality groups, refers to proposed changes in Internet architecture that would give priority to the traffic of those who have paid for premium service.25 So, how would that work? To those stuck in the middle of this fervent debate, the internet could resemble both.
To explain, let’s revisit the highway metaphor. Imagine that there will be two lanes on the new information superhighway – one slow, one fast. The slow lane, i.e. the lane wherein all traffic is treated equally, will be available to everyone who can pay for standard service. The fast lane, however, will be something of an internet VIP experience where services such as video streaming will be expedited in premium packages. This sort of arrangement appears to be compromise of sorts. It is not. Allowing ISPs to discriminate and manipulate content under the guise of a two-tiered system is a loss for net neutrality. Content favoritism26 will abound and you, the consumer, will be handed pre-packaged content that exists because of business partnerships; not its merit alone. This is a problem.
If you use the internet, the FCC’s plan to lift net neutrality considerations will allow ISPs to restrict what you view online. As was mentioned earlier, their crusade to end net neutrality has been raging for nearly eight years – and it’s not yet over. Dec. 14th will be a pivotal moment in the history of the fair and open internet. Thankfully, though, it is up to the online community to determine how this history is written. As such, we at Sycamore Education are joining arms with our fellow internet residents to protect the home we’ve grown up in. So where do you fall in this debate? Here’s the way we see it: If you support inclusion, a neutral internet is the answer. If you support innovation, a neutral internet is the answer. If you support information, a neutral internet is the answer. There are various ways for you and/or your company to get involved: petitions, social media, phone calls, emails, and so on. Your voice has value, silence won’t work. Click here to get started.
-Cory Ruzicka, Director of Learning