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Net Neutrality and You

Internet service providers (ISPs) such as AT&T, Comcast, Time-Warner, and Verizon have been conducting an intense lobbying effort to end Internet neutrality. Without outlining the history of these industry incumbents and their relationships to the Internet as providers, I will attempt to explain briefly why ISPs do not like net neutrality. My aim in doing so is to provide a basis for you to understand what net neutrality means both to ISPs and to users of the Internet and why you, as an individual who may be interested in protecting the current openness of communication we enjoy using the Internet today, should support net neutrality.

Currently, the computers which run the Internet do not discriminate between different kinds of Internet traffic. For example, if you send an email to someone and then use a web browser to get the news, the computers which run the Internet do not concern themselves with whether your email should go slower or faster than the data from the news site. ISPs currently are neutral with regard to the priority of the traffic that crosses their systems.

On 25 May 2006, the bipartisan House Judiciary Committee approved the Internet Freedom and Nondiscrimination Act of 2006 (aka “the net neutrality bill”) by 20-12. The bill has two thrusts. The first regards preserving current Internet communication. This bill would make it a crime to “block impair, discriminate or interfere with anyone’s services or applications or content.” So far, so good. The second more thorny issue regards the enhancement or development of new types of Internet communication. This bill would also require, in the event that ISPs develop improved Internet services, that they offer those improved services to competitors.

Breaking things down, the net neutrality bill would 1) make it a crime for ISPs to deliberately impair existing kinds of Internet communication and 2) require ISPs to offer broad access to new kinds of Internet communication as they are developed. ISPs swear up and down they would never hamper existing kinds of Internet communication. However, they claim that to develop better kinds of communication they need to discriminate between data types. This is the problem: discrimination between data types conflicts with the promise not to hamper existing types of communication.

If ISPs offered access to a faster kind of Internet communication, say high-resolution video, by definition the speed of that communication would be greater than what existed before. However, ISPs want to reserve these speed increases for particular types of communication (e.g. high-resolution video), so the ISPs’ computers would have to discriminate between different kinds of data. Instead of remaining neutral between email and high-resolution video, the computers that run the Internet would say, “Here is some data that is high-resolution video” and would put that data in the fast lane. Simultaneously, these computers would also say, “Here is some data that is email” and would put that data in the slow lane. This seems reasonable until you consider that the ISPs are self-interested as any good business should be.

Because ISPs are self-interested, AT&T's computers might say, “This data is ABC's high-resolution video. ABC has partnered with us so their data goes in the fast lane.” Simultaneously, AT&T's computers would say, “This data belongs to Google's high-defintion video. Google is our competitor so their data goes in the slow lane.” The result is that you, the Internet user, would have a crummy experience with Google's high-resolution video and a better experience with ABC's high-resolution video if your Internet access was provided by an AT&T that was allowed to discriminate against certain types of Internet traffic in favor of others.1

The ISP solution to this problem, of course, is a fee that the ISP might charge a client/competitor to ensure that the client's data is also placed in a fast lane (a fast lane probably different than the fast lane available to the ISP's partners). Such a fee would likely stifle innovation, hinder competition, and increase prices, while benefitting the business interests of ISPs and ISPs only. Furthermore, such fees, in the final analysis, would likely be borne by Internet users themselves as companies forced to pay such fees would pass the cost of those fees to their customers and so on down the chain.

The above scenario does not even mention what would happen to web sites like this one or any of the hundreds of thousands of small independent web operators who today enjoy what is the most effective implementation of the principle of free speech the world has ever seen. Adam Cohen of the New York Times believes that the “[. . .] Democratic Ethic of the World Wide Web May Be About to End” unless net neutrality is preserved. Cohen understands that

A tiered Internet poses a threat at many levels. Service providers could, for example, shut out Web sites whose politics they dislike. Even if they did not discriminate on the basis of content, access fees would automatically marginalize smaller, poorer Web sites.

I am liberal in my views, so the question that the president of the Christian Coalition asks

What if a cable company with a pro-choice board of directors decides that it doesn't like a pro-life organization using its high-speed network to encourage pro-life activities? (qtd in Cohen)

speaks to me. Because I believe deeply in the value of free speech to a just and democratic society, I do not like the idea that pro-life opinions might be silenced by pro-choice entrepreneurs or the reverse silencing of pro-choice activists by pro-life boards of directors.

The commercial interests which oppose net neutrality are crafty, powerful and engaged in “a misleading campaign, with the slogan 'hands off the Internet,' that tries to look like a grass-roots effort to protect the Internet in its current form” (Cohen).

The future of free speech on the Internet is in jeopardy and the fate of the Internet Freedom and Nondiscrimination Act of 2006 is uncertain. While the 20-12 vote by the House Judiciary Committee is reason to be cautiously optimistic, the groundswell of support for net neutrality needs all the help it can get. I hope you will do your part.  end of article

Further Reading

Non-partisan, non-profit coalition to preserve Internet neutrality, Save the Internet.com.

Analysis by technology news website, arstechnica.com.

Wild & woolly (moderated) discussion about the passage of the net neutrality bill by geek-types.

Industry-sponsored opposition to Internet Neutrality, Hands Off the Internet.org.


1 Perhaps as much as seventy percent or higher of the Internet traffic in the United States passes through AT&T's computers because AT&T owns most of the fiber-optic backbone through which most North American Internet traffic passes.