A secret war is being fought in the internet industry right now, but unless you are a die-hard student of all things tech, you might not even know it’s taking place. The more conspiratorial-inclined among us accuse the mainstream media of avoiding coverage of this debate because of their close ties to the opponents of net neutrality, but it’s also a very complex, “unsexy” topic that is hard to explain in easily digestible soundbites.
The principles of “network neutrality” have been the subject of hot debate for over a decade now, but as of yet, there has only been one highly publicized incident of a company actively “violating” the basic tenet of net neutrality, which is that all data on the internet should be treated equally, both in terms of accessibility (can I see it?) and how quickly it loads. For Americans, censorship is a hot-button topic, so the accessibility issue isn’t normally included in the ongoing debate. What’s at stake is whether internet service providers like Time Warner, Comcast and AT&T can charge content providers (NetFlix, Google, Spotify) more because they use so much data, and if those companies refuse to pay the premium, would their bandwidth be throttled, lowering the quality and/or value of the service itself.
Another aspect of this debate is whether the US Government (or any government, for that matter) should regulate the internet like a utility. Both sides of the net neutrality fight are of mixed opinion on this. Some argue this would encourage (enforce) competition in the ISP market, and would allow oversight into ensuring net neutrality was observed, but as many others have pointed out, this didn’t work so well for the telecomm industry the first time we tried this. The other thorny facet of this issue is the plain fact that the internet is not owned nor controlled by any one country, though it could be argued that the US holds a “majority stake” in its creation and continued wellbeing.
What this means for you:
Today, the FCC has presented a plan that many feel completely undermines network neutrality by providing a “regulated” means for ISPs to create “fast lanes” of service into which content providers may opt, and if they do not, presumably their content would be delivered via the “normal lanes”. If no one opted into the fast lanes, this would be a moot point, but as you all know, in business, those who get to the finish line first win, and everyone else, regardless of whether they finish at all, lose. Even the most altruistic of companies (Google maybe?) are willing to get their claws out when it comes to competing, and being slow on the internet is the difference between being Facebook or being MySpace.
In my opinion, network neutrality is a concept worth understanding at minimum, and if you take the long view on improving our civilization, an important principle that should be upheld. Competition is what made America great once, and it is what created the amazing technology we have now, including the internet. Creating tiers of accessibility and quality within a service that most would view as a fundamental need (if not right) might end up creating a version of the internet (at least in America – imagine the irony) that is the antithesis of internet that is spreading information, freedom and equality around the world.
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