Many people will see the words, “Net neutrality” and groan about yet more tech gobbledygook and geeks who spend too much time pretending to be Mr. Spock and watching Star Trek re-runs. Nobody on Main Street cares about net neutrality, right? Isn’t this all just an arcane concept that never intersects with real people on Main Street?
Well, not so fast.
The real story – behind all the tech jargon – is as old as the first antitrust issue ever to come before the US Government more than 100 years ago. And it will effect everyone who connects to the Internet, which is pretty much everyone these days. For people who think tech is only for weenies, think money. $Billions in money. And all of it comes from your pocket.
Net neutrality means Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are supposed to treat all Internet traffic equally, end to end. Every data packet should be treated equally to all other data packets, regardless of source or destination. ISPs should be neutral carriers and not make judgments about favorable or unfavorable traffic.
Here is the issue. Without net neutrality, large ISPs will have the legal right to mess with your traffic. Large players will have monopoly power and will control your access to services you care about.
And what happens when any monopoly player offers its own, competing services? Forget high tech for a minute.
Let’s say Alice runs a restaurant. But Bob controls all the streets in town. If Charlie wants to eat at Alice’s restaurant, Charlie has to travel over Bob’s streets to get there. What happens if Bob’s sister, Doris, opens a restaurant that competes with Alice? Bob wants to make sure money stays in the family, so Bob sets up toll booths for all travelers on his streets. But people who eat at Doris’s new restaurant get their tolls refunded, courtesy Bob. Of course, this puts Alice at a competitive disadvantage, so Alice eventually closes. Before long, Bob controls all the restaurants in town.
Now back to high tech. Today’s large cable companies offer bundles that include phone service, Internet service, cable TV, and premium services such as movies on demand. These companies control both distribution and content. They control many of the streets and some of the restaurants. They want to control all the streets so they can encourage you to eat at their restaurants.
If any single ISP becomes your only choice to connect to the Internet, that ISP controls your access to the services you care about. ISPs can exercise that control with pricing and surcharge gimmicks, much like the antitrust monopolies of old. But today’s ISPs also have even more powerful tools. They can prioritize traffic or play other quality of service games, to treat traffic badly they don’t want to carry.
Today’s familiar services such as Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, and others, at their core, are elaborate websites. The path from your house or business to those services runs through the Internet. Without net neutrality, ISPs can grant or deny or regulate or tax access to these services as they see fit. If an ISP decides it wants to offer, say, retail services, what access policies will it set up for Amazon? Let’s say you put your business in the cloud, but your ISP offers a competing cloud service. What quality of service will your ISP give you?
This is not hypothetical. Comcast, for example, blocks traffic coming from email servers located in home networks. More ominous, thousands of Netflix users are complaining about bad Netflix movie quality when connected to Comcast. Comcast counters that it has a right to prioritize traffic as it sees fit because it wants to protect occasional Internet users from heavy downloaders. Following that line of reasoning, I wonder if Comcast prioritizes its own Movies on Demand service similarly to Netflix, which competes with its own service?
Net neutrality is under constant attack. If open access to Internet services is important to you – and it should be – then familiarize yourself with the details around net neutrality and make your voice heard. Your livelihood may depend on it.