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Net Neutrality in a Netshell

Published 01/10/2018

Want to find consensus on something?

Bash the repeal of Net Neutrality and watch everyone come rushing to your side.

Democrat or Republican, you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who isn’t pro net neutrality.

Interestingly, these same people probably will struggle to explain what net neutrality even is, let alone why they’re all for it.

Let’s start with defining it first.

Net neutrality is the principle that Internet service providers must treat all data on the Internet the same, and not discriminate or charge differently by user, content, website, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or method of communication.

For instance, under these principles, internet service providers are unable to intentionally block, slow down or charge money for specific websites and online content.

There you go. Straight from Wikipedia.

So let’s move on.

Kidding.

That definition does little to illuminate what net neutrality is for most people, so let’s start with an analogy.

Let’s say that you live in a house with a driveway.

At the end of your driveway is a little booth manned at all times.

Whenever you go to leave your driveway, the person in the booth stops you before you can get on the road.

“Where you headed?” the man asks.

So you tell him you’re headed to Walmart.

“Excellent!” the man says. “Take this road right here.”

The road is brand new. It’s paved, spacious and provides a direct route to Walmart.

So you head to Walmart, do your shopping and come on home.

The next day, you go to leave again and the man stops you.

“Where you headed?” he asks again.

And you tell him you’re headed to your son’s house.

“Excellent!” the man says. “Take this road right here.”

But this isn’t the same road as yesterday.

This looks like a pretty delipidated road, and it’s headed in the opposite direction of your son’s house.

You try to explain to the man that your son lives right next to Walmart, so you’d like to take the same road you took yesterday.

“No can do,” the man says, offering no further explanation.

Without choice, you head to your son’s house, but the road is bumpy the whole way and the circuitous takes you three times as long as the nice road.

But you go and come back because you don’t have another option.

The next day, you go to leave your driveway yet again and the man stops you.

“Where you headed?” he asks again.

And you tell him you’re headed to Target.

“Ohhhhh….” the man says. “That’s going to be a problem. I can’t let you on a road to Target.”

You object and explain the road to Walmart literally passes right by Target.

“Oh, well. I can let you use that road to go to Walmart,” he says. “But you can’t use that road to go to Target.”

Flustered you say you’ll go to Kohl’s instead.

“Excellent!” the man says. “That’ll be $10.”

You’re incredulous.

Kohl’s is in the same parking lot as Walmart, you tell him.

“Oh, well. I can let you use that road to go to Walmart,” he says. “But you have to pay to use that road if you’re using it to go to Kohl’s.”

You’re head looks like it’s going to explode.

“You look pretty upset,” the man says. “So I’ll tell you what. For $20 a month, you can use that road to go to Walmart, Kohl’s, Target and your son’s house.”

Trying to make the best of a bad situation, you agree to the $20 a month.

“Great!” the man says. “So you’re off to Kohl’s now?”

Sure am, you tell him, but you explain that you’re going to stop at Publix on the way back.

“Yeah….. about that….” the man starts.

You can see where this is going.

If it reminds you of cable TV, you’re spot on.

Interestingly, net neutrality as a regulation is much newer than the Internet.

On February 26, 2015, the FCC ruled in favor of net neutrality by reclassifying broadband as a common carrier under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934 and Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

On April 13, 2015, the FCC published the final rule on its new “net neutrality” regulations.

What these basically meant was the US Government saw Internet as a utility – much like the water that runs to your house and the telephone lines.

Opponents of net neutrality use this to mollify defenders of net neutrality by explaining to them the Internet worked fine long before 2015, so what’s the big deal?

Well, until then, net neutrality was basically assumed since the ISPs (Comcast, AT&T, Time Warner, etc) never tried to deviate from that practice.

However, they were starting to.

So why did the FCC repeal net neutrality?

Ajit Pai, the FCC. chairman, said the rollback of the net neutrality rules would eventually help consumers because broadband providers like AT&T and Comcast could offer people a wider variety of service options and lower the costs for other customers.

This actually makes sense.

Instead of just having choices of speed (the faster download speeds, the more money you pay), ISPs could start offering more options.

For example, Comcast could sell you a basic package that allowed you access to all news sites and the could do it way cheaper than your carte blanche package you have right now.

For people who wanted to access news sites and streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, they’d have to get the premium package.

They’d pay more than they are now, but because the ISPs are limiting who can access the streaming sites, the ISPs can provide “better” access, i.e., higher quality video with less buffering.

Furthermore, if your ISP is Comcast (which owns NBC), you get free access to all NBC video content.

This opens the door for a lot of backroom deals.

Take the Walmart example from the road.

Walmart could make a deal with Comcast that allows Comcast to provide all their users to free access to walmart.com but stipulates Comcast must block access to target.com.

So, yes, repealing net neutrality does give ISPs more options, but will they use those options to better service their customers or their bottomline?

Perhaps the better question is: Does is matter?

Sure, as customers, we want what’s best for us.

But we can’t walk into Walmart and demand that everything costs the same.

Walmart owns the product. Walmart sets the prices.

The argument for ISPs is the same: They own the pipes, so shouldn’t they be able to charge what they want to access those pipes?

The answer depends on your political and ideological views.

In a free market, customers would jump to another ISP if their ISP didn’t treat them fairly.

However, there are so few ISPs and there is such a high barrier to entry (cost, regulation, land, etc) that customers don’t have many options.

Hopefully you see this isn’t a cut and dry decision and there is a difference between “ideally” and “possibly.”