WTF is Net Neutrality?

Net neutrality has been in the news a lot lately, and for good reason. Your engineers might be making a stink about it, but it’s hard to know if this is one of the alarms that will actually affect you or your business. You have probably heard everything from “this is end of the Internet” to “this is the same as before 2015” and everything in between. So which is it?

This is not a political blog, and I try to keep these posts as factual and unopinionated as possible, as I’ll try to do here. However, this is a tech blog, and net neutrality is critically important to anyone whose business depends on the Internet, as well as anyone who uses it. This isn’t about Democrats or Republicans – there are people on both sides of the issue on both sides of the political spectrum. I’ll try to remain objective, but as someone whose livelihood depends on the Internet, my strong support of net neutrality will be obvious.

So what is net neutrality?

Net neutrality means that Internet Service Providers (ISPs), including both home Internet providers like Comcast, Time Warner, Cox, and Charter, as well as mobile carriers such as Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint must treat all Internet traffic equally, including both home broadband and mobile plans. It has been a guiding principle since the Internet began and it has led to all of the websites and apps you love today. Innovation has thrived on the Internet because it’s a level playing field. You can thank net neutrality for the millions of websites and apps that have undoubtedly changed your life over the last 25 years.

Why is net neutrality important me as a consumer?


The best analogy is cable TV: you pay for a pre-defined set of channels, and you pay more for additional packages. Without net neutrality, Verizon could do the same thing for the Internet: For $29.99/month you get Facebook, Instagram, Google, Wikipedia, and, of course, all Verizon services (like Yahoo!) For $39.99/month, you get all of the above, PLUS Reddit, Medium, and Twitter. But wait! For a low introductory price of $49.99, you can also watch UNLIMITED NETFLIX! What a deal!

Great, so you’ve carefully selected the plan that covers all of the apps and websites you use today. But what about tomorrow? The great thing about the Internet is that there is always something new and exciting popping up. What about that hot new app SnapFace that all your friends (who are on Sprint, duh) are using? You just need to call Verizon to get it added to your plan. Being a large, slow moving company, they promise that SnapFace will be supported by late next year and will only add $5/month to your current plan.

Short of blocking access to certain websites and apps, ISPs could merely slow them down. You’d be paying for the high Internet speed you get now, but AT&T could intentionally slow down access to certain sites or apps and charge you for “premium access.” You’d see a lot more loading spinners, wait an a few extra seconds for webpages or minutes for Netflix videos to load.

This may sound extreme, but it’s what opponents of net neutrality are fighting for. Nobody wins except ISPs. Certainly not consumers.

Why is net neutrality important for my business?

Unless you work for Comcast, Verizon, or another ISP, a repeal of net neutrality will hurt your business. Without net neutrality, ISPs will be able to charge protection money (yes, like the mafia) to businesses in order to keep their websites and apps accessible to customers and to keep them as fast as their competitors. This may sound like hyperbole, but it has already proven to be apt. In 2014, Comcast violated net neutrality by intentionally slowing down consumers’ access to Netflix. It continued until Netflix agreed to pay Comcast to end the intentional throttling. Other ISPs followed suit, and soon Netflix was paying several ISPs just so that their customers would be able to watch Netflix videos at the same speed as videos elsewhere on the Internet.

Don’t work for Netflix? Do you really think that the Comcast et al. will stop there after all the free money they got from the deal? Comcast and Verizon have spent millions of lobbying dollars trying to revive their ability to require Internet companies to pay them fees to stay online or to stay as fast as their competitors. There’s no reason to believe they won’t do the same with every business with an online presence.

Net neutrality would be especially hard on the little guys, and everyone on the Internet started as the little guy. Google and Facebook started as tiny startups without the money to pay Verizon to keep them online. Thousands of startups are born every year that don’t begin with a lot of capital. The popular ones eventually become big, but they don’t start out that way. Killing net neutrality wouldn’t kill Facebook or Google because they have billions of dollars to pay every ISP to keep them in the fast lane – in fact, it gives them a defensive moat as it raises the barriers to entry for their competitors. But it would kill the next Facebook or the next Google before it has a chance to prove itself.

Netflix, Facebook, and Google can afford to pay extortion money. Can your company?

So what’s happening now?

In November 2017, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates these sorts of things, announced plans to end net neutrality. They are expected to vote the week of this writing, on December 14, 2017. How did this happen? The FCC chair, Ajit Pai is – I’m not making this up – a former Verizon executive, part of the very small percent of the population who would actually benefit from revoking net neutrality. ISPs have spent millions of dollars lobbying Congress – which oversees the FCC – in order to allow this to happen. And it looks like it’s going to pass.

Haven’t we been through this before?

Yes, and much like other hot button issues, it will probably come up again. This one – December 2017 – is the most dangerous threat yet because it is a complete rollback of net neutrality and it is likely to pass. A lot of the people and corporations who were fighting for net neutrality are simply worn out from fighting this fight so many times. It’s definitely exhausting to get outraged each time there’s a threat to net neutrality, but each time it’s warranted.

Won’t this just bring is back to 2015 rules? The Internet worked just fine back then.

The current rules took effect only two years ago, so some opponents of net neutrality argue that this just brings us back to 2015 when the Internet worked just fine. That’s partially true. 2015 was when the the FCC adopted the strongest resolution in favor of net neutrality to date, known as Title II reclassification, which said that the FCC could regulate broadband Internet in the same way it regulated the telephone network. Before that, the situation was murkier. The FCC generally regulated in favor of net neutrality, but without as strong a stance as the 2015 resolution (CNET has a good history here). The current proposal will roll us back beyond 2015 and definitively make it legal for ISPs to segregate traffic and slow or stop customers from accessing websites and apps that it doesn’t like – or that don’t pay up.

Is this all Trump’s fault?

On the one hand, this does seem like part of Donald Trump’s plan to compulsively reverse anything that happened during the Obama administration. On the other hand, Obama’s pick for FCC chair, Tom Wheeler, was not much better than Trump’s pick; he was also a lobbyist for the cable industry. This is not a partisan issue: both democratic and republican senators have come out in favor of net neutrality. The only ones who have come out against it – on both sides of the aisle – are those that have taken lobbying money from the cable industry. That’s really the only reason one would oppose net neutrality.

So what can I do about it?

Since the FCC has a fox leading their henhouse, it is likely to proceed with its plan to strike down net neutrality. However, FCC is accountable to Congress, so contacting your representative is the best way to stop them. Battle For The Net is a great resource that connects you with your representative and provides a suggested script to follow. Again, unlike just about everything else in the news right now, this is not a partisan issue; both democratic and republic senators have come out against this – basically anyone who understands the issue and is not being paid by ISP lobbyists.

If you operate a website or an app, you can show your support for net neutrality through by educating your users that this issue will affect their ability to access your service. An online protest is planned for December 12; learn more here.

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