The principle of Network Neutrality in a nutshell, is that a network (such as the Internet) should treat all the data passing through it the same. It's "neutral" in the fact that no data is given priority over any other data--none is "sped up" and none is "slowed down" as data is transmitted through the network.
Now that sounds reasonable, doesn't it? (Well, I think it does, anyway.) If we think of the network as being the means of transmission, data is data, and the network shouldn't "care" what the data is passing through. Sort of like the wires bringing electricity to your home, or pipes bringing water, though this is just an analogy. Does it matter what you're going to use the electricity for? Is plugging in a lamp different than plugging in a radio, or a refrigerator, or an electric razor? Does it matter what you're going to use the water for? Is washing the dishes different than taking a shower, or filling a water bottle? As far as the wires or pipes are concerned...electricity is electricity, and water is water. But is it different somehow when it comes to data transmitted over a high speed network connection?
I would say yes; networks--such as the Internet--should treat all the data traveling through them the same. But not everyone sees it that way. And that is really what the Net Neutrality argument is about.
|Image by Norlando Pobre [CC BY 2.0]|
But this brings up the dilemma: are ISPs media companies? Or are they more like public utilities--like the electric company, or the water company?
If ISPs are categorized as utilities, Network Neutrality makes all the sense in the world. But if they are categorized as media companies? Well...that's a little more complicated. Many of the large ISPs (I'm looking at you, Verizon, Comcast, Charter, and AT&T) are owned by conglomerates that also own various media holdings. For example, Verizon bought Yahoo this year. Yahoo is clearly a media company, with products that include a whole list of content services (Yahoo Sports, Yahoo News, Yahoo Music, Yahoo Movies, etc.) as well as communication services (Yahoo Mail, Yahoo Messenger) and a group of subsidiaries including widely-used social platforms such as Tumblr and Flickr. So...is Verizon a telecommunications company? Or is it an information service company?
This is the essential question! With Net Neutrality, Verizon might be your ISP, allowing you to connect to the global network of computers we call the Internet, but they don't prioritize one source of data over another.
But without Net Neutrality? All bets are off. Because what happens if Verizon decides that they really want to bring Yahoo search back to life, and get it to resume the place it held as the premier search engine in the world? (I know, I know...you probably can't even remember a world before Google...but there was a time that Yahoo was the go-to site for search!) Well, as an information service company, Verizon might say, "We want people to use Yahoo to search the web...so we'll slow the data transmission speed on Google to a crawl, but boost the speed on Yahoo to lightning quick!" Would that have an impact on Google? Well, it's hard to say, since this is all theoretical at this point, but since so many Americans get their Internet access through Verizon, it just might make a difference for those consumers who aren't willing to wait around for a slow-as-molasses Google search to come up with results when Verizon's amped-up Yahoo connection is raring to go.
Or how about streaming video services? Maybe you use several different services, like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video to access content online? What if Verizon decides that they really want to boost Yahoo Movies, and so they say, "We'll give you Yahoo Movies for free! If you want to add Netflix to your monthly Internet bill, you can do that for just $10 a month." [In addition to what you're already paying Netflix for their service, mind. This would be a "data transmission fee" or something like that from Verizon.] Maybe Verizon would even give you a bundled deal for "Internet Video: access to Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video, all for just $22.95 a month!" [Again, in addition to what you already are paying these companies for the service.]
Since I've been using them for my example, I'll stick with Verizon, but this applies to any ISP that also owns media companies: Imagine that Verizon starts bundling different service options for additional feeds (imagine "Add social media for just $9.95 per month, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat!" and "Add our Google premium package for just $15.45 per month, including Gmail, GoogleDrive, YouTube, and Blogger!") but don't charge extra for their own information services ("Yahoo Video is included free with your monthly plan!") there will likely be negative impact on other services. Or if Verizon slows access to other media companies while boosting the speed to their own, there likely would be a negative effect on those other services.
Now, none of what I've said here is probably surprising to you, given the nature of free-market capitalism. Every company is out to make money for themselves (and their investors, presumably.) And that's not a bad thing in and of itself, obviously. If companies are acting legally, and are able to edge out their competition, good for them! With ISPs classified as information service companies, the argument is that people will vote with their feet, and choose the best option for their needs. Competition will lead to people choosing the right company for them, and ISPs will have to gauge their pricing to win over consumers. Good for everyone!
The point is this: most Americans don't have their choice among a menu of ISP options. (This report from Ars Technica suggests that there are 50 million homes in the US that have one--or zero--providers of high speed Internet access.) In many areas, ISPs have a virtual monopoly on access. Now, you might argue that no one has to have Internet access. And I'll concede, that's true...in the same way that no one has to have running water or electricity in their homes. But I think it's fair to say that there is an expectation that people today will have easy access to a relatively speedy Internet connection in their homes. And this makes me say that ISPs have to be thought of more like utilities than media companies.
Can you imagine your electric company charging you more for using a hair dryer than a lamp? Or can you imagine your water company slowing the flow of water for watering the flowers in the backyard, but speeding up the flow for filling the bathtub? That sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? Because utilities simply provide the service--access to the electric grid or the water main--and don't try to control what you do with the service. And most of us don't have our choice of electricity providers or water providers...we have one utility in the area, and we pay for the service, and it's regulated to ensure that we aren't being gouged on a kWh or gallons-per-month basis.
The difference with an ISP is, they know what the data is--or at least what the source of the data is--when you are connected to the Internet. And they can potentially affect the transmission of data coming to you through your Internet connection. So if you only have one choice for a provider...it's not all that different from other utilities...and to prevent monopolistic behavior, regulation is actually a good thing.
And that's why I think Net Neutrality is a good thing for consumers: if you don't have a choice in your provider, the companies providing access shouldn't be allowed to mess with transmission of data, or mess with the pricing. If I'm paying for a 25 Mbps Internet connection, I should be able to transmit the data at 25 Mbps for that price, no matter if I'm streaming from Hulu, catching up on Twitter, or writing a blog post.