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Net neutrality is the concept that Internet users should be the ones who control what they see on the net, not internet service providers (ISPs) or the government. Among the specific rights lobbied for under net neutrality are:
- The deregulation of content (other than that which is criminal, such as child pornography);
- Open access to all sites and platforms;
- The prevention of ISPs from charging extra for access to "premium" sites.
Naturally, corporatists don't like the idea of net neutrality. For instance, Glenn Beck has compared net neutrality proponents to Marxists, which is hilarious because by that "logic" the entirety of Silicon Valley would be Marxists. This may be because opponents and paid shills have likened it to the Fairness Doctrine as applied to the Internet, even though it has nothing to do with political speech.
In February 2015, the Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 in favor of Title II reclassification of the internet as a public utility, a victory for net neutrality advocates in the United States. However, with ISPs threatening to sue, the battle is not yet over.
Nevertheless, for now the fight appears to be swinging in favor of the average consumer. Nope. Under Ajit Pai the FCC has repealed it altogether.
The "information superhighway"
Imagine the Internet as a big city. Houses, offices and businesses are connected to one another by a network of roads and streets. To be able to reach other locations in the city, you need to pay a small monthly fee for a company to add you to their road network and maintain the network. There's a few companies which own the road network, competing with one another to provide better, cheaper service.
Let's say one of these companies – let's call them Horizon – happens to own the only road which leads to the office of a really popular business called Gaggle Inc. That stretch of road gets a lot of traffic. Gaggle already pays for a ton of lanes to reach their office so that they can get customers in and out quickly. But Horizon sees an opportunity and turns this stretch of road into a toll lane, charging customers coming in for using that route. They can also choose to redirect customers who are trying to reach Gaggle to a competing business, like Ding, provided there's a financial incentive.
Another company – we'll call them Camcost – notices that they're losing clients to 80 and Tea, a competing company which offers a similar service for much less per month. Camcost decides this is unacceptable and so they cut down on the lanes leading to the 80 and Tea road network until there's only one route with one lane. While people using 80 and Tea's service notice no difference, people using Camcost's service notice it takes significantly longer to reach 80 and Tea's office and are thus discouraged from switching companies.
In perhaps the most disturbing application of this analogy, 80 and Tea has two clients. One is a major political candidate and the other is a journalist working out a small office. The journalist doesn't have a lot of traffic. But one day, 80 and Tea gets a call from their candidate who tells them that this journalist is about to write a story they don't want seen. The candidate can't order the story to be suppressed – that would be a violation of the First Amendment – but they can pay 80 and Tea to ensure the journalist's story can't be read. So 80 and Tea blocks all traffic to and from the journalist's office indefinitely.
Obviously the Internet is not a big city and packets are not cars. But this serves to illustrate what ISPs are capable of doing without net neutrality.
All packets are created equal
What net neutrality dictates is that all Internet traffic, regardless of source or destination, is to be treated equally. This means that Internet service providers cannot discriminate between packets sent from a competing ISP, or charge more for traffic to or from a specific source or destination, or block sites based on their content (an exception exists for illegal content). They can, of course, charge their customers for a bigger "pipe" (Google, for instance, has a massive link to a Tier 1 ISP) which equates to a better incoming/outgoing traffic capacity, but they cannot charge Google merely for connecting to a certain number of customers per day or for sending a certain volume of traffic through that pipe per month.
In relation to the Fairness Doctrine, net neutrality has no similarities. The Fairness Doctrine was a purely political framework dictating that a radio or television station promoting one viewpoint had to give equal time to the opposite viewpoint. So, if you were to host El Rushbo on your radio station for an hour, the next hour would have to feature a guaranteed timeslot for a liberal speaker. This was why pundits like Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly were almost unheard of before the 1990s, when the Fairness Doctrine was lifted – every hour hosting one political commentator required an extra hour hosting a second political commentator.
However, net neutrality opponents (ironically a lot of libertarians) argue that both net neutrality and the Fairness Doctrine are examples of the government's overreach into the free market, and the fact that the Fairness Doctrine failed should be seen as a reason to burn net neutrality. In reality, net neutrality isn't as simple as regulation versus deregulation; net neutrality ensures that Internet service providers cannot act as regulators themselves, in effect decentralizing the Internet by buffering their power against consumers and Internet companies. With or without net neutrality, the Internet will be regulated, but net neutrality ensures that the power to regulate is itself heavily regulated (to the point that it is de facto deregulation).
Why libertarians don't get this is beyond the scope of our imagination.
Who supports net neutrality?
Anybody who owns/rents a web server or pays for broadband Internet service, so about 99% of Internet users. And the previous Chairman of the FCC and former cable company lobbyist, Tom Wheeler himself.
Who opposes net neutrality?
Ajit Pai, the (thankfully now former) chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.
Which means we're all fucked.
In a nutshell
- Glenn Beck: "Net Neutrality Pits Free Speech Against Free Press"
- FCC Confirms Chairman Will Revise Net Neutrality Proposal, Mashable
- Wheeler on how the FCC will ensure Net Neutrality
- Ted Cruz, I'm going to explain to you how net neutrality actually works, The Oatmeal
- Net Neutrality Is the Next Con, The Rush Limbaugh Show
- Alex Jones Has Net Neutrality Meltdown: This Is What The Nazis Did!, Right Wing Watch