You’ve heard about Net Neutrality, but you don’t quite get it. Or you think you do, but your nerdy friends keep saying you don’t. Or you unfortunately arrived here because you searched for ascii porn, and have no idea how Net Neutrality is related. This one’s for you.
The Fast Explanation
Net Neutrality is the concept that all Internet traffic should be treated equally. And by “equally” we mean that different kinds of information on the Internet should all be delivered to the the end user without any regard for what kind of information it is. You ask, you get, and no one is standing in the middle saying “Actually, that info you wanted isn’t important enough for you to get it quickly.” Everyone who makes content available on the Internet can have it accessible to whomever wishes to view it (sadly necessary disclaimer: this applies only to content that is otherwise legal in your country, state, and district). Everyone who wants to view content on the Internet can ask for it and get it at the same speed as any other content. Kind of like how when you pick up your phone to actually call someone (I know, who does that anymore, right?), you expect the call to be completed and the person on the other end to be able to respond in real time, no matter who you are calling. Equal, two-way access, no matter who you are calling.
The Longer Explanation
If you’re not into the long, wordy explanations, skip this part and jump to the breakdown.
There’s a long history to this issue, and nerds like myself are often inclined to get a bit het-up about it and start throwing around a lot of terminology that sounds like it was sifted straight out of a sci-fi movie. But don’t stress; you probably like sci-fi movies, and just like the monologue by that nerdy scientist in your favourite, the jargon isn’t actually that opaque or hard to understand. This is, by the way, the point where you just said “Whoa, Doc, slow down and say that again in English.”
The Internet wasn’t originally designed for you. Hard to believe, I know, but it’s true. The early proto-Internet was built for the US military, and then universities glommed onto it, and only later did businesses and then individual households start hooking in. This is important, because it means that it wasn’t built with you in mind. Unlike the idea of, say, the telephone (which was inherently personal), the idea of the Internet was that large organizations could collate and exchange information. Sure, there were individuals on each side of the line, but they were working for agencies, and it took a while before an individual came up with the idea of ascii porn and started putting it out there (like, pretty much until the first university got a connection).
What I’m saying is that there was no reason, in the beginning, to make sure the Internet was open and fair for everyone. Because the only people on there were the ones building it.
Once the plebes (read: us) got hooked in, though, things changed. We moved quickly from ascii porn and querying library catalogues and playing D&D in BBSes (see, I told you there’d be technical terms) to downloading actual pictures and uploading actual pictures and blogging about our dog. Now most of us carry around a computer with us all day long, and take for granted that we can research our interests, whether they be kitten videos or Wall Street portfolios, at the click of a button. A lot has changed, but the rules haven’t.
So naturally, the Internet Service Providers (those people you pay a fee to for your Internet connection every month) got the idea that there had to be a way to make more money off of this. And they realized, somehow, that most people already hate their Internet Service Providers (it doesn’t help that they’re usually your phone/cell phone/cable/satellite company, as well). So they started looking “upstream”. What we mean by “upstream” is those folks who build a website that provides the content you’re looking for. When you go to Youtube for kitten videos, Youtube is “upstream” from you. So is the Wall Street Journal, when you visit their site online. So is any Internet site you go to. And the bright idea the Internet Service Providers (let’s just call them ISP’s, OK?) had was this: we can’t charge more to the people going to websites, but we can totally charge more to the websites people are visiting. If they want people to not get bored waiting for their content to load, they’re just going to have to pay us a little extra.
And thus, a great controversy was born.
The problem was that the ISP’s were taking the “Cable TV” viewpoint, while the rest of us were taking a “Call My Friends” approach. And, honestly, here’s where the ISP’s got it horribly wrong: the Internet, unlike television, was never just a playground for those who could put together the time and money to produce a television program (don’t talk to me about public access; that’s a sacrifice cable companies were legally compelled to provide to justify their monopolizing of the system, and when’s the last time you watched a public access program?). Anyone with $10 and a little patience could build a website and get their ideas out to untold numbers of people. The people who built those websites did some amazing things: they enabled contact between people living in disparate cultures, the allowed direct trade between artists and art-lovers half a world apart; they opened discussion boards for scientists to collaborate, writers to share stories, children to have near real-time pen pals. And, of course, they enabled our currently near-debilitating fascination with cat videos. I’m not saying it’s all good.
But it’s a playing field where everyone, even in our currently over-saturated climate, has a chance of being heard. Of being seen. Of being made fun of for being seen. Of finding love, because someone was really sorry for you that everyone in the world was laughing at that video of you falling down drunk on your 40th birthday. Of starting a business based on the t-shirts you sold at your own (psychological) expense, commemorating the online proposal that redeemed your fate in the eyes of millions. You know, the Internet. It’s more than a two-way street.
But the ISP’s, thinking it’s more like Cable TV, thought they could start charging the “most wanted” websites more so that their content would get to you faster. Which means, effectively, that all those little websites get their content to you slower. And as we all know, 2 seconds in Internet time is approximately 20 years in real life. Imagine this: your friend sends you a link to a website where someone is selling their handmade whatsits. Your friend assures you they are amazing, the most beautiful examples of whatsits they have ever seen. You type the site name in your browser…and wait. And wait. One second….two…
Guess they didn’t pay their “fast traffic” fee. How much do you care about those whatsits?
Here’s what Net Neutrality isn’t:
- It isn’t the government trying to dictate what ISP’s can charge for their services. It is the concept that the government should prevent ISP’s from charging extra to some websites to get their content to users faster than other sites.
- It isn’t the government preventing ISP’s from charging extra for extra services. ISP’s routinely already charge us on a scale related to how fast our Internet (ostensibly) comes into our homes. Net Neutrality applies only to the ISP’s charging content providers extra, and given that they claim they’re already delivering us content at the highest speeds we can afford, that necessarily means they will slow some traffic in order to prioritize those who can pay.
- It isn’t excessive, unnecessary government regulation. Look, I’m as over the incomprehensible bulwark of legalese as the rest of you. But in a culture where a few large companies hold the cables that most of our Internet traffic runs through, and in a culture where we’ve by and large accepted the concept that corporations are solely for the purpose of generating profit for their shareholders, it’s actually a good idea to have a little regulation to make sure those corporations don’t quash all the little guys. You know, like we did with the telephone companies. Before we all started using the Internet, instead.
A Final Metaphor
Imagine your dog is vomiting all over your house, and you realize he may have just eaten that slice of chocolate cake you left on the coffee table. You rush to the phone and call your vet, only to be met with the following message:
“We’re sorry, but the number you dialed is not on our Preferred-Contact System. Please enjoy the following musak while we go about connecting your call. Or consider pressing “1” to bypass this message and be immediately connected to one of our Preferred-Contact Veterinarians. Your original call will be completed in 10…9…8…”
Now tell me, when’s the last time you went to the Internet to research a medical issue? Or the phone number of your vet?