What Is Net Neutrality and Why Should You Care?
You may have heard that Net Neutrality is in the news again. If you're wondering, "What is Net Neutrality?" or, "Why do I care?" or, "Does this mean my cable bill goes up or down?" we've got answers to (most of) your questions.
What's Net Neutrality? (Explain It To Me Like I'm 10 Years Old)
If you don't like reading things, here's a good video explanation:
Okay, Explain Net Neutrality To Me Like I'm Five Years Old
The internet is a series of tubes.
YouTube has many tubes coming out of it, so the video can get out.
YouTube's tubes go to lots of other big companies like Comcast and Verizon.
Comcast and Verizon have small tubes that come to our house and our neighbors' houses, and hook up to our wifi thingies. That's how the video gets into our house—it goes through tubes from YouTube to Comcast and Verizon, then through little tubes to us.
So let's look at a hypothetical—I mean, uh, "imaginary"—situation.
The trouble is, we watch a lot of YouTube. You know it. Admit it. Okay, it's okay, stop crying. It's not your fault. It's our whole family watching YouTube.
No, see, the trouble is that because we like YouTube so much, Comcast and Verizon might want YouTube to pay them extra money to make sure they keep those tubes flowing nicely so our video keeps coming in. After all, it costs money to keep all those tubes flowing. And they like money.
But what if YouTube doesn't pay up? Then Comcast and Verizon could block those tubes, or maybe slow them down. Then we don't get to watch our John Green videos anymore, or they just buffer...all...the...time. That's bad. And for a long time now, it looks like the U.S. government was going to say that was okay. I know, that's scary!
But let's keep going for a minute. What if YouTube does pay Comcast and Verizon for a nice fast tube? Well, that money has to come from somewhere, so it probably means YouTube puts more ads on the videos. Yeah, I know, there are already a lot of ads. But somebody would have to pay for this, right? Maybe Comcast and Verizon could just charge us more if we want YouTube on our internet. Right now, we just get YouTube because it's part of the internet...but the government has been saying maybe it's okay to let Comcast and Verizon and the other companies change that.
But the scarier thing is, what if Comcast and Verizon decided that they liked Vimeo better than YouTube? What if they bought Vimeo because they liked it so much? And then what if they decided that the Vimeo videos would always flow smoothly, but the YouTube videos would be slow and get stuck in that weird buffering thing? It would be hard for us to watch YouTube. And Vimeo doesn't have very many John Green videos. So we'd probably end up paying extra just to get our YouTube back.
And what if somebody comes out with a new site that's better than YouTube and Vimeo combined? Let's call it FutureTube. How is FutureTube, a startup based in your cousin's garage, going to afford to pay to get videos into the tubes when the big sites are already set up with these special paid pipes that make video flow smoothly? What if the next John Green (we'll call her Jane Blue) starts making all her videos on FutureTube, but Comcast and Verizon don't like FutureTube because FutureTube doesn't have much money yet? That would be bad. Jane Blue would be really blue.
"Net Neutrality" is an idea that should stop all of these bad tube-related things from happening. The idea is, lots of Americans want the government to make strong laws saying that all the tubes should be treated equally, no matter what Comcast or Verizon or YouTube or FutureTube or Vimeo or anybody says. All the tubes should work the same way.
Okay, Knock It Off and Explain It To Me Like I'm a Grownup
So here's the boring truth: "Net Neutrality" is a cool term representing one idea for "How we should regulate Internet Service Providers (ISPs)." That's it. A lot of people cast this debate in terms of freedom, neutrality, equality, free-market competition, and so on—and that's one way to look at it, sure—but it comes down to the details of how the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is going to regulate (or not regulate) ISPs in the future. To a great extent, we currently have Net Neutrality, so the discussion lately has been mostly about whether we should preserve it, extend it, or remove it (after all, plenty of people are into deregulation). Net Neutrality advocates are mostly saying, "Make it keep working like it does now, but let's please make sure that's legally enforceable."
The explanation of the internet above as a series of tubes isn't technically correct or complete in plenty of ways. For one thing, it's messy sorting out who pays whom in the equation—because consumers pay ISPs for broadband service, and ISPs have peering agreements with each other (basically, shared access to each other's networks, which can be paid), and there are many special cases like Netflix's OpenConnect (a way to put Netflix servers in ISP data centers to reduce the amount of "distance" between streaming server and clients, among other things). To some extent, everybody is paying everybody to make it all work. But we should probably put aside the technical details and just get to the heart of the question: What exactly is the FCC planning to do?
Last Wednesday, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said he plans to classify broadband ISPs using the FCC's "Title II authority." This is a big deal. This means that the ISPs can be regulated much like phone companies have been, because the internet is as important to Americans' daily lives as landline phone companies used to be. The Title II regulation of phone companies led to a stable network of interoperating phone systems that worked pretty well. Many geeks feel that when you have the near-monopolies that represent the broadband ISPs in the U.S., regulation is the only way to make them play nice. (Where I live, I have a grand total of two choices for broadband, and one is deadly slow. Um. So I guess I'll stick with the not-slow one?)
(If you're interested in Title II in detail, read this explainer.)
Wheeler's move to embrace Title II (after previously supporting a very different legal scheme) was likely influenced by two very public factors: President Obama supporting it, and literally millions of public comments from geeks (and non-geeks) who responded to stuff like John Oliver's video on the topic, which has been viewed 7.8 million times as of this writing (not to mention all those who saw it on his HBO show Last Week Tonight):
President Obama's video, viewed 0.8 million times, is less compelling, but still:
Does This Mean Net Neutrality Is Here Now?
Yes and no; like I said above, we have a form of Net Neutrality now, but we lack a strong set of laws to enforce it. The big news is that the FCC Chairman and President Obama think Title II regulation is the right way to go. What comes next is a long process of rule-making, probably lots of court cases initiated by broadband providers, and so on. Also, just because Tom Wheeler says a thing doesn't necessarily mean he'll do it—but I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, given the intense public scrutiny on this issue. I mean, John Oliver already called him a dingo (Wheeler was surprisingly cool about that one).
From a geek's perspective, getting national leaders onboard with the concept of Net Neutrality at all is a big deal, and having them specifically adopt Title II is what most geeks have been asking for (by the way, the ISPs hate Title II—and you know when a regulated entity hates a particular regulation, it probably works).
Why Should I Care?
There's a nice visual explanation of why you should care, over at A Guide To the Open Internet.
As you scroll on that site, note all the crappy add-on packages in the "What ISPs Want" section. Does that look familiar to you? It looks just like the junk that comes with my cable internet bill. Do I want to add phone service? How about a security package? How about premium channels? Maybe I'd like a DVR? Or a bundle of everything for just $10 a month (tiny print: price goes up to $200 a month starting in six seconds; two-year contract required)? Nope. I just want internet service, and I want to pay for it like I pay for my phone. I pick a plan from the available providers in my area, I pay a single fee, and then I make phone calls. I don't want my ISP controlling how I use my data, as long as what I'm doing is legal. Seems fair, right?
Will This Reduce My Bills?
In the short term, no, because nothing has actually changed yet. In the long term, maybe, though it's hard to predict.
It's important to remember that this whole issue isn't about reducing costs for consumers; it's about how the internet works in terms of getting information from one point to another. While we have reason to hope that there will be positive side effects like increased competition or increased innovation (like "FutureTube" above), those are not the core reasons to protect how the internet works.