What Is Net Neutrality? Here's What You Need To Know, And Why Its Fight For Survival Matters
Last Wednesday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposed a set of new rules that could increase the amount of time we spend online — but in a pretty unenjoyable way. The rules would allow Internet service providers to pick and choose which companies will have the fastest websites, based on which companies can pay most. Linked frequently to this proposal is the term "net neutrality," a principle that President Obama swore to uphold in 2007. It's also something that could be killed by these new rules.
But what exactly is net neutrality, and why are people getting so worked up about it? Will it affect our day-to-day lives, and if so, what exactly will change? We're here to answer all your questions.
What is net neutrality?
Net neutrality essentially refers to the equal treatment of all companies, big or small, in transferring their information from point A to point B, with point B being your computer. It is, effectively, the Constitution's equal protection clause applied to the Internet. This means that consumers should not have to worry that Internet providers are privileging one website over another, and making it easier to access one site while making it more difficult to access another.
For example, net neutrality makes it just as easy to access your neighbor's startup as your neighbor's Facebook. Net neutrality, then, is what makes the Internet a free and equal space, where access to information is, theoretically, unfettered.
What is an ISP?
Ah, another acronym that keeps popping up along with net neutrality. ISPs are Internet Service Providers. The Internet is not a free service that magically appears across the airwaves. Rather, there are companies that must connect users to the web. The major ISPs include Verizon, Comcast, Time Warner, Cox, AT&T, and Suddenlink.
What would the end of net neutrality look like?
What the FCC has proposed is to allow ISPs to charge companies an extra fee for faster service. The implications of this could be two-fold. Some companies, by way of being wealthier, would be far more easily accessible than others. No longer would your neighbor's start-up be as easily accessible as his or her Facebook page. Whereas companies like Google and Facebook would be able to pay extra to deliver their data to their customers at higher speeds, not all companies could say the same, particularly small businesses.
This extra fee could also wind up hitting your pocket. If Netflix had to pay its ISP more in order to provide fast access to your daily dosage of Scandal or House, you might have to pay Netflix more. This could result in a lose-lose situation for both companies and consumers.
Wait, how did we have net neutrality before?
Great question. In 2010, the FCC implemented the current net neutrality rules, which said that ISPs could not "block or unreasonably discriminate against different forms of Web traffic." But in January, Verizon leveled a lawsuit against the FCC, claiming that the FCC had no authority to control the way in which Verizon provided its services. Unfortunately for the Internet, federal judges agreed and struck down these rules. Though the courts agreed that net neutrality needed to be upheld, they disagreed with the FCC's capacity to do so.
So now the FCC is going the other way altogether?
While this may seem like the case, the FCC's new proposal is by no means meant to sound the death knell of net neutrality. Currently, there is no legislation in existence that makes net neutrality the law of the land. While the FCC has certainly tried to make it so, January's court decision made it very clear that it does not have the jurisdiction to do so. Instead, the FCC is trying to assert its power in a different way: by giving companies the option of paying more for faster service, while allowing the FCC to conduct a case-by-case examination of the fairness of these options.
There would still be a required standard of service — ISPs wouldn't be able to just drop certain companies altogether — and the FCC would be able to review the terms of faster service. So in some sense, the FCC is almost trying to go about things in a roundabout way, but right now, it doesn't seem that popular.
What do other countries have to say?
Interestingly enough, new rules in Europe say the exact opposite: that telecommunications and cellphone carriers cannot charge their customers more for better access to data or networks.
Does this have anything to do with the Aereo case?
Interesting you should ask! If net neutrality really does go away, it is likely that even if Aereo manages to get by the Supreme Court, it will be dead in the water. Broadcasters certainly don't want a company like Aereo pulling their data and sending it to users free of charge. As such, allowing for certain companies to be charged more could make it incredibly difficult for startups like Aereo to survive, especially considering the powerful enemies it has already made.