Net Neutrality

You may have, amidst headlines for llamas and color changing dresses, seen some big news: the FCC approved the Open Internet Order, a major victory for net neutrality.

This may be a new phrase for some people, but it’s a battle that’s been raging on the internet for a long while. There’s a very long list of arguments made by both sides, and rehashing each one would likely go into a level of knowledge not required by most folks. But, here’s the basics:

Net Neutrality proponents are trying to keep the internet open — in essence, keeping it functioning as it does now. Internet providers (Comcast, Verizon, Time Warner, etc) would like to have a little more control over how traffic gets handled. If a company like Netflix, which uses a large amount of bandwidth, would like to be easily accessible by its customers, it must pay a higher fee for “fast-lane” internet — and they’d like the ability to throttle speeds for companies that don’t pay that fee.

The Federal Communications Commission yesterday agreed with the Net Neutrality proponents and reclassified the internet as a public utility. This gives them greater regulatory authority — and gives them the power to tell providers that they must handle all traffic the same way.

Providers argue that this is a move that will stifle innovation in the future, partly by limiting funds for research and development. They also point out that reclassifying the internet as a public utility puts the internet at risk for over involvement by the government — too many laws closing the internet off instead of keeping it free. Additionally, they say  its unfair that they should have to continue to treat sites like Netflix and Youtube (who use a vast amount of resources) the same as others. Those same sites are contributing to a rise of cord-cutters — the folks who decide they can get along without pricey cable subscriptions, and the providers would like to recoup at least some of that loss. They hold that they should be able to throttle certain types of traffic, as they have done in the past with peer to peer sharing — partly for copyright infringement reasons, they say.

Plus, cable providers point out that they are responsible for the infrastructure that the internet relies on — and they shouldn’t be limited in how they develop and handle that infrastructure. If they are subject to increased regulation, they’ll have less funding and incentives to implement higher speed broadband networks.

Proponents, such as the Electronic Freedom Foundation, point to cases where providers have already throttled or rejected internet traffic as a show of what the future without net neutrality would be like. Netflix and Youtube both famously made waves by calling out Comcast and Verizon for interrupted videos and slow playback, prompting consumer complaints.  (Netflix eventually signed a deal with both providers to improve performance).

Additionally, proponents say, a closed internet could prevent the next Netflix from ever happening. A fledgling company offering a high bandwidth service may not be able to pay for a higher tier of access to the site — thus never gaining traction or customers. In the case of competing services, it also means the bigger budget wins the faster site — and the users. There’s also the fear that the big sites may raise prices (or implement subscriptions for free sites) in order to cover their higher costs to the providers.

There’s also the issue of competition. Part of the net neutrality debate has been the expansion of new broadband networks that are independent of current providers; in many places (including Cape Cod!) consumers are very limited in their choice of provider, which does not favor competitive pricing, customer service or infrastructure improvements. Part of the ruling Thursday included a overturn of laws prohibiting the development of municipal broadband in North Carolina and Tennessee, opening the door for more competition.

Supporters believe that a free and open internet is a necessity for modern life — for job seekers, for economic health, for community. The flow of information has changed the way we see world events (see the events of the Arab Spring). It brings us together, even if that’s just to argue about the color of a dress or to watch some sassy llamas on the run.

Although the FCC vote was a big victory for fans of net neutrality, there is a long road before the matter is settled; lawsuits, lobbying and political fights are on the horizon.