So…What is Net Neutrality?

If you’re reading this right now, you have a stake in the fight over net neutrality. Why? You’re logged onto the internet, first and foremost. And I’d be willing to bet that you also have an iTunes account, a Facebook page, a PayPal account, an Amazon identity, and dozens, if not hundreds, of other connections to online forums and news sources and entertainment venues.

Net neutrality’s definition is different depending on who you ask. It boils down to two sides: those in favor, who characterize the internet as a level playing field, where everyone has equal access to the same content, applications, devices, and a competitive list of providers. They want to pass laws that ensure the Internet remains “neutral,” in that whoever pays for access to it is allowed to access whatever type of content or app with whatever type of device they deem necessary.

Then there are those opposed, including telecommunications companies, who want the right to “tier” the internet by a. giving preference to certain content and b. controlling what bandwidth is available where. Their argument is that unregulated competition is fairer to companies who pay more for extra bandwidth (essentially, they pay more for a competitive advantage, so should actually enjoy that advantage by having websites that load faster than the sites of those who pay less), and that existing bandwidth needs to be rationed.

Examples of controlling bandwidth would be Comcast inhibiting the ability of its users to access file-sharing programs (which caused the Federal Communications Commission [FCC]) to sue Comcast in 2008, ruling their actions illegal, but the lawsuit was overturned by a federal court). Another example would be a provider charging overage fees to online game players because their gaming platforms take up so much available bandwidth.

You may associate net neutrality with the bizarre “Pirate Party“ that is officially registered in Sweden, the UK, and Canada. However, the Pirate Party is far more extreme than most net neutrality proponents, as it lobbies for significant changes to copyright laws that would allow internet users to share unlimited files.

(Bonus:  If you check out the Pirate Party UK page, you can see a paranoid, fake ad they created to illustrate how an internet provider might charge a flat rate for use, than another fee for access to news and/or entertainment and/or social media).

That a provider would charge someone to access the New York Times is absurd. The Times is mostly text and doesn’t take up nearly as much bandwidth as a site streaming mostly videos would. However, there has been talk about charging sites like YouTube a higher rate for internet, because their content takes up so much bandwidth. If that happened, YouTube would probably not be free anymore.

Since the early 2000s, net neutrality proponents have tried to get the federal government to pass laws regulating what providers can charge users, but have failed. Big telecom companies like AT&T and Comcast have banded together, giving over $23 million in campaign contributions during 2006 ““ 2008 alone. So far, their lobbying appears to be successful.

Because so much of the debate over net neutrality is speculation, it’s hard to draw accurate pictures of what would happen if providers succeed in bucking what FCC regulations are already in place. The casual internet user wouldn’t  have as much to worry about as a company that relied on the web, but there is the possibility that significant costs would trickle down. Would, say, a blogger at a small women’s magazine who wanted to upload videos to her site be charged a fee to do so? Or would added costs for large companies result in users paying to use social media sites? We can’t know for sure.

If you’d like more information from net neutrality supporters, check out Save the Internet’s website. If you’d like a taste of the opposing side, check out Hands Off the Internet’s short cartoon.

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