A Field Guide to Net Neutrality

Before I read about net neutrality and rules that every provider must essentially follow, I thought the Internet was just this wild thing that nobody could control, like the Tasmanian Devil, only way more abstract and filled with weird and time-consuming K-holes. Basically, providers like Verizon are trying to control bandwidth, which eliminates the concept of net neutrality. So, those weird and time-consuming K-holes? Yeah, they might cease to exist someday. The Internet, in its flawed but free state, might be in trouble.

First of all, let’s talk about what “net neutrality” means.

Net neutrality is the philosophy that all Internet data is to be treated equally by Internet providers, such as Cox, AT&T, Time Warner, and Verizon. It means, no matter what (even if it is competing with AT&T’s communication services), the provider cannot block traffic to any kind of website, platform, application, etc. So, with net neutrality, I should be able to log on to my Gmail account, Skype with friends, listen to music on Pandora, and binge watch Orange is the New Black on Netflix with no problems whatsoever. Each of these websites should load at the same speed.  This sounds good, right? That’s because up until recently, everyone has been playing by the Open Internet rules.

What are the Open Internet rules?

The FCC created regulations that are meant to make sure that broadband service providers (like Verizon) keep the Internet open and don’t block access to certain parts of it that may…interfere with their business.

The three main Open Internet rules ensure that all providers must be honest with how they deal with Internet traffic, prohibit broadband operators from blocking legal content on their networks, and disallow “unreasonable discrimination against traffic on their networks” (Cnet).

Basically, these rules protect all that is the Internet and its glory.

This could possibly change though as of last Tuesday.

Right after the FCC started implementing these rules, Verizon began to challenge them, arguing that “the FCC had no authority from Congress to impose such rules and that the rules stymied its First Amendment rights.” If big corporations can’t have the Internet, than NOBODY CAN!

On Tuesday, the Federal Court of Appeals ruled in a 2-1 decision that the FCC based its three rules on a “flawed legal argument” and that it shouldn’t have power over broadband providers. Since the FCC treats broadband providers differently than telecommunications providers, it can’t use rules that pertain to both. I’ll explain what this means shortly.

Verizon says that they should not be considered a “common carrier”.

A “common carrier” is a company that offers its services to the general public while under constrictions by regulatory agency. So, because these companies (such as  Verizon or Comcast) own wires that run through public and private land, the FCC wants them to be under the same constrictions as an electric company, a phone company, or anyone else using public land for their own monetary gain. The FCC essentially considered Internet providers to be in the same utility camp. Verizon is fighting this, saying that they shouldn’t be lumped under the same “common carrier” constrictions because they don’t provide a “necessary” public service. Even though most of us would probably argue that the Internet is super necessary, am I right?

However, the FCC lost, because the court decided in favor of Verizon for this argument. This doesn’t mean that the court disagrees with the FCC’s views of regulation, they just don’t think Verizon falls into the “common carrier” laws that apply to telephones and electric companies.

What exactly does Verizon want?

The problem that all of these internet providers are dealing with is that there is a limited amount of bandwidth for a growing multitude that is using more and more data. Think Netflix. Think music downloading. All of that sucks up a lot of bandwidth. The cable companies want to regulate how this bandwidth is shared amongst its customers. The companies that use more (Netflix, Hulu, Bittorrent) should get charged more (according to Verizon).

The possible outcomes:

  • Smaller websites or start-ups would never be able to afford the bandwidth in order to compete with the larger companies. The general public would essentially be censored from these sites and they would run super slow anyway.
  • Large companies like Netflix would face an increase in bandwidth fees and would pass this cost down to its customers.
  • Maybe nothing will change for the end-user (us) and Verizon will us its new-found profits to improve its services for everyone (which is what they’re saying they’ll do). 

So what happens next? Does the FCC still have regulatory power over Verizon?

The FCC does have a voice, and the war isn’t over yet. Congress doesn’t exactly want Verizon to be able to have authority over who gets access to what.

Providers like Verizon are still going to be regulated. They can’t just block their customers from accessing certain websites. And if they do tamper with traffic, they are legally supposed to notify their customers that they’re doing so (and I don’t think a lot of people are going to be happy about that).

However, this new Internet handling is a pretty big deal. It does mess with our First Amendment rights, and we shouldn’t allow big corporations to have such massive control over the Internet.

How does this affect you?

We don’t really know yet. Which is scary. What might end up happening is an increased price for “good” Internet service. Services like Netflix and Hulu will most likely raise their prices.

A lot of people are fighting for net neutrality and the FCC is still going to try to come up with new regulations that don’t use common carriage as their legal basis.

Feel free to post your thoughts on this issue as well as provide any information that I may have skipped over! It’s important that all of us are aware of what is going on. The less passive we are about issues that directly concern us, the less likely companies like Verizon will be able to get away with corporate greed.

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