Lately, the news has been covering the possible demise of “Net Neutrality”. You may be asking yourself “Should I care and what the heck is it?”
As background information, recall that the original Internet was financed entirely by the citizens of US via the Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) which needed a network of computer systems that were reliable enough to keep working under adverse conditions --- like a nuclear attack. The idea was to link together all of the government computers of various architectures to allow them to share information. Computers would be spread across the US so that if a computer in the network failed, the system could route information packets around it to one that was still online. It was called the ARPANET which evolved into what we today call the Internet.
“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.” [Wikipedia]
Like any complex defintion, in order to understand it, several terms within it must first be defined: what is an “Internet Service Provider”, what is “Content” and what is a “User”? “User” seems obvious: you and me and everyone who uses the Internet is a user. Also, you, the User, are also a customer when you use (read,see, listen to, copy, share..) “Content” on the web. Content is provided by (wait for it...) a Web Content Provider like Google, Amazon, Facebook or Netflix. To complicate matters, a “Web Content Provider” is also called “Content Service Provider” so anyone who hosts a web page on the Internet is a Content Service Provider. For example, Google hosts free websites (like the one for this column: tec-doc.blogspot.com). Finally, an “Internet Service Provider” (ISP) provides access to the Internet for you, the user, (or the company you work for), and is generally paid for this service.
So, given the above definitions, what exactly is the problem? There appear to be two main issues: the first concerns how to govern the Internet. Who should set the rules(if any) and who shall enforce them? While this may on its face seem like a reasonably tractable problem, it unforunately is argued according to political views. If you’re a conservative you tend to favor letting private enterprise and the free market be the governing agency; if liberal, you favor government regulation because not only did the government (all citizens) spend the cash to create the Internet, you feel it will look out for not only your intersts but the the interests of everyone and not just corporate interests. Just as the railroads and telegraph/telephone technologies began with tracks and wires funded with government assistance, so too was the Internet; therefore let the government govern.
The other division of opinion is over the question, “Who shall profit from the Internet?” and that issue becomes fuzzier as there is a growing overlap of services between the Web Content Providers and the ISPs. For example an ISP, in additiion to providing the “pipes” for the information highway, can also provide email, video, and phone service to residential and business customers. So you are not limited to getting your movies only from Web Content Providers like Netflix or Amazon, because ISPs like Comcast and Charter supply them too --- along with high speed Internet.
Generally, Users and Web Content Providers side with Net Neutrality principles enforced by a government agency like the FCC because Users dislike monopolies which drive up their costs and feel their interests will be best served by laws passed by duly elected representatives. Web Content Providers tend to think Government control will be more even-handed and wil protect them from the ISPs overcharging them for service. The ISPs however, tend to favor the free market approach which would allow fast and slow lanes (at different costs) to better regulate traffic on information highway; this will increase their wealth which they can invest in new and wonderful innovations (which, to the chagrin of the othe stakeholders seems to be an accelerating rate of ISP mergers inevitably leading to monopolies).
If you’re still confused, welcome to the club. Perhaps the best advice I can offer for following this three-way tug of war is to “Follow the Money!”