If you’ve watched or overheard the news in the past five years, it’s likely that you’ve caught the term “net neutrality.” However, it’s also likely that – unless you are a tech head – you didn’t entirely understand what it meant. Well, suffice it to say that it is a politically charged topic with a lot of diverging opinions, and it’s going to impact how you use everything from search engines to your smartphone. Here then, is a Reader’s Digest abridged, totally unbiased attempt to explain this issue so that you can form your own opinions.
I know it’s not a new analogy, but think of the internet as a highway system. Here’s what’s important to remember, though: It is a highway system built by private companies, not the government. Now imagine that virtually all of the country’s citizens rely on this highway system every day to do their jobs and live their lives.
So far so good – that’s pretty easy to understand, and not really controversial. But here’s where it gets interesting. You see, because private companies own those highways, they need to make a profit. So in order to earn back their investment and pay their employees, they charge a toll for using their roads. Fair enough, right?
The problem is that when private businesses act in ways that seem fair to them and their employees, they can sometimes do things that seem unfair to others. Here’s where net neutrality gets complicated. Pretend that the companies that own the highways also own pizza delivery restaurants (just go with it, analogies aren’t easy). It seems like a smart business move, then, for them to raise the toll for pizza delivery drivers from competing businesses who use their highway. Why keep a level playing field when you own the playing field? It’s just good business right?
The real issue comes when those highway companies decide to buy newspapers and deliver them via their roads. They can let their own newspaper delivery drivers use their highway for free, but charge the competing newspaper drivers extra. More concerning, if they don’t like a news story because of political or business reasons, the highway company can keep that story out of their own paper and put a roadblock up stopping any other newspapers from getting into their area – essentially stopping anybody in their highway “network” from seeing the story at all.
With a new president and a new chairman of the FCC, the issue of net neutrality is heating up once again. You see, while many politicians (and their constituents) favor government regulation that forces these highway companies to give everyone equal access, others believe that they should have the right to do whatever they want with their private property. You can probably guess which side our last president was on, and which side our new president is on.
So here’s a real-world example that might bring things closer to home. Comcast is the largest broadband internet provider in the United States. They also own roughly 1/3 of the streaming service Hulu. Do you believe that Comcast should have the right to restrict their customers from using Netflix (because Netflix is a competitor to Hulu)? Or should their customers be able to use the network however they see fit without limitations? That’s the main debate here.
Just to make things even more complicated, those who support the freedom of our pretend highway companies to do as they see fit will argue that if you don’t like your highway provider, you can always find another highway to drive on. This is unreasonable for many parts of the country, however. For example, here in Grand Forks, while Midco (partially owned by Comcast) is one of the world’s best ISPs, their competition (the woeful Century Link) lacks the infrastructure to be considered a legitimate alternative. (I often laugh out loud when I receive their postcards advertising 1.5 Mbps as “high speed internet.”)
Net neutrality is going to be a hot topic in the next few years and it’s a debate worth watching, because it directly impacts your digital life. One way or another, we will all want to keep one eye on Washington as it sorts this issue out.