Net Neutrality - Why Should You Care?

Category: Reference

On January 14, 2014, a U.S. federal appeals court struck down the FCC’s Net Neutrality directive. The essence of Net Neutrality is that Internet service providers should not be allowed to speed up, slow down or block certain types of Internet traffic. That sounds commendable, so why did the Court say no? Let's take a deeper look...

What Does Net Neutrality Really Mean?

Net Neutrality is a sticky issue. It seems that most of what you see written about it comes from partisan viewpoints, with dire predictions of the future of the Internet emanating from both sides. I've not seen much about Net Neutrality that presented arguments by both sides. I'll try here to give equal time, and let you decide.

The U.S. District Court of Appeals recently ruled against the FCC's Net Neutrality rules, on the grounds that the FCC lacked authority to impose them. Some argue that this gives Internet Service Providers (ISPs) the power to control what you can access online, and to make backroom deals with powerful content providers that will make it impossible for smaller companies to compete.

Others claim it's a victory for free enterprise, which should not be overly burdened by government regulation; and that Internet companies should be free to manage the flow of traffic through their networks in a way that benefits both them and their customers.
Net Neutrality

The Argument For Net Neutrality

Those in favor of Net Neutrality claim that because of the court striking it down, ISPs are now free to regulate what Internet content you can access via their networks and, from another perspective, whether you can even contact their customers. They can make your competitors’ websites and file downloads faster than yours, so that customers will desert you.

They could even make video of the Giants football games stream smoothly while the 49ers’ games jerk and skip. You might be banned from using Skype to make free phone calls, or forced to pay extra if you use Netflix.

Large corporations, they claim, will control what search results you see, and the order in which they appear. Your email may be delivered in milliseconds or hours, depending on what “premium” service you choose to buy. Online services will be better and faster for business users than they are for consumers who don’t pay for the Internet’s full capabilities.

Money will determine who gets preferential treatment, for the most part. Whoever wants their content delivered quickly and without limit will pay, and whoever can’t or won’t pay will have content delivered slowly and subject to monthly data caps. Startups, small businesses, non-profits, and amateur bloggers will suffer; many will simply disappear to the majority of Internet users. The public Internet will become a private cash cow for the likes of Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T.

The Other Side of the Argument

The appeals court ruled, correctly, that the FCC does not have statutory authority (power granted by Congress through law) to enforce Net Neutrality. Congress can grant the required authority to the FCC by passing a new law. The question every member of Congress is asking is, “Why should we?”

This whole Net Neutrality kerfuffle happened because the FCC accused Comcast of throttling (slowing down) BitTorrent traffic. If that was true, who could blame Comcast for doing so? Most BitTorrent traffic is illegal downloading of huge files that contain copyrighted movies and music. And when lots of people on a network are downloading huge files, it can create problems for the average user who just wants to read email, browse the Web, or tell everyone on Facebook what they had for lunch.

And based on this claim of throttling, the FCC made the assertion that Internet Service Providers "might" try to do things like blocking or slowing competing services, charging consumers more to access certain types of content, or making shady alliances with content providers that would make it hard for smaller companies to compete.

The FCC worries that an ISP offering Internet, phone, and digital TV could say "No Netflix or Hulu for you. Buy all your movies and TV shows from us." Or that they might block or throttle services like Vonage, to make their own VoIP phone service more attractive. But as far as I know, none of these things were (or are) actually happening. It's doubtful that the ISPs even have sufficient clout in the marketplace to do these things. If they did, they'd probably be sued for anti-trust violations. And can you imagine the backlash from consumers, if, for example, Verizon blocked customers from accessing Hulu or using Skype?

Further, the FCC's proposed ban on treating some kinds of data differently than others could actually be a negative for consumers. There are advantages to prioritizing some types of data. I think, for example, that it's reasonable to make sure that VoIP (Internet phone) traffic takes priority over downloading email, so voice quality is good. And that users who want to download pirated movies should either get lower priority, or pay more for faster service.

Others argue that the court failed to address something more important. One of the judges in this recent case opined that the hotly contested Section 706 of the Communications Act, as currently interpreted by the FCC, gives "virtually unlimited power to regulate the Internet,” and would eliminate the restraining power the Congress currently has over the FCC.

After witnessing recent abuses of power by the IRS and NSA, do we want to give another government agency unchecked power to regulate something as important as the Internet? Can we trust politically appointed bureaucrats to do the right thing, when it comes to regulating Internet business models, consumer price controls, and content? Can we even assume they possess the technical savvy to understand the possible unintended consequences of their actions?

What Can You Do?

I think it's reasonable to make sure that the FCC has the power to block any actual abuses of market power, when it comes to the behavior of Internet service and content providers. This can be done either through limited regulatory powers (with Congressional oversight) or by the application of anti-trust principles.

You, and I, and everyone who cares about the Internet, are the only thing besides money can sway Congress. The ISPs have money; we have votes. Urge your representatives in the House and Senate to pass legislation that gives the FCC the power they need to prevent abuses by service providers. But demand that they consider the possible unintended consequences, and consult with unbiased technical experts before doing so.

Do you have something to say about Net Neutrality? Post your comment or question below...

 
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Most recent comments on "Net Neutrality - Why Should You Care?"

(See all 34 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

Daniel Wiener
27 Jan 2014

Thank you for an objective presentation of the pros and cons of net neutrality. As a libertarian I would come down on the opposition side. The government should not be butting into private enterprise, especially to address speculative fears which bureaucrats are conjuring up. Do big companies sometimes behave "badly"? Sure they do, but not nearly as badly as the government does. Ratcheting up government regulations "just in case" is likely to have very bad consequences.

Unlike a lot of young people, I'm old enough to recall when AT&T was a government regulated and enforced monopoly. Prices were high and innovation was non-existent. All we had were dial-up phones, and they belonged to AT&T; you only rented them. Yes, AT&T was broken up using anti-trust laws, but the real change was the removal of restrictions on competition, based on the premise that AT&T was no longer a monopoly so the government no longer had to control every facet of telecommunications. The result was an explosion of innovation.

These days there are still lots of giant telecoms and ISPs, since by its nature telecommunications requires a large and expensive infrastructure. But there's no single monopolistic company, and there is more than adequate competition to prevent really bad behavior. It's not just that we as individuals have alternatives. In some locations there may be more limited choices than elsewhere, as Paul Given commented above. But overall there are lots of alternatives, and if (for example) Comcast tried to screw an individual customer or discriminate against a web site without an extremely persuasive reason, the impact would instantly ripple through the Internet to its entire customer base. Other customers would flee to other providers where they could, the bad publicity would be horrendous, their stock price would plunge, etc.

These days more than ever the free market is capable of harshly disciplining "bad actors". As voters we have some limited influence over elected officials, but when major problems arise we have far less ability to discipline the government when it is a "bad actor" than we have as consumers to impact private companies. Net neutrality is a pseudo-solution looking for a hypothetical problem.


Posted by:

Daniel Wiener
27 Jan 2014

I meant to say "rotary dial phones" rather than "dial-up phones" in my previous comment.


Posted by:

Narada
27 Jan 2014

This is falsely represented as an objective presentation of both sides of the argument, when the pro-neutrality argument is a cartoon version featuring alarmist fools. The court did not say that the FCC doesn't have the authority to require net neutrality, only that they could not do it under the 'common carrier' regulations. The court went out of it's way to say that there was every reason to believe that such regulation should exist and the FCCs motive for so regulating was sound, proper, and necessary.

Michael Beckerman, president and CEO of the Internet Association, a political lobbying organization formed by members of the Internet industry, including Google, Facebook, and Amazon, argues that without any rules in place to protect the openness of the Internet, innovation on the Internet will be in jeopardy. He says that companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon have been able to thrive because of the Internet's "innovation without permission" ecosystem, which provides a low barrier of entry to anyone with an idea. He cautions that the success of the Internet to date should not be taken for granted.

"The Internet Association supports enforceable rules that ensure an open Internet, free from government control or discriminatory, anticompetitive actions by gatekeepers," he said in a statement.

Mozilla Sr. VP Harvey Anderson says the court's decision is alarming for Internet users because it will also provide broadband operators the legal ability to block any service they choose, which will undermine the once "free and unbiased Internet."

Net neutrality is among other things a free speech issue with the internet at it's core being a free and open technology with the network providors properly being end-to-end dumb to the content being sent between end-users. Would you think it fair and reasonable that your phone call quality could depend on what you were saying?


Posted by:

Jon
27 Jan 2014

This is a bit reminiscent of the controversy over Roosevelt's rural electrification program. There was controversy at that time about government intervention and the cost - especially with the country recovering from The Depression. National control over pensions and senior health care was also very controversial at the time they were started. Now, individuals of all political stripes support rural electrification, a national pension and senior health care funding. It would seem that the real problem with the Internet is that there is no uniform national network. In some regions services and connections are much slower and efficient than in other areas. Do we want a country where services goes to the majority and is less where the population is thinner? It is starting to put us behind Europe. With a national network of uniform quality the question of network neutrality may be resolved. Or should we advocate privatization of all government controlled institutions in the name of free enterprise - for example privatizing the TVA and so on. On the other hand, one benefit of government involvement is that obscene CEO salaries are somewhat curbed.


Posted by:

Maggie
27 Jan 2014

I see this as the bought & paid for green-light for the ISPs who also offer cable TV content to choke off my ROKU streaming bandwidth. "They" (the ISP/Cable Corps.) saw their profit margin decline as more & more of us 'cut the cord', and without Net Neutrality they won't be able to continue to bleed we selective viewers for the 500 channels (+ commercials) that we don't care to watch.


Posted by:

Kathy
28 Jan 2014

I'm not exactly sure where I stand on this issue - I think both sides make some valid points - but I want to thank Bob for his clear and concise wrap-up. This kind of post is why I am an avid reader!

Here's something to think about, though. While I agree that free market principles *should* keep ISPs in line, don't forget that most of us are locked into 1 or 2 year contracts with our ISPs as well as our television and telephone providers. And sometimes, the terms of these "contracts" change - how many times have we seen satellite or cable providers drop certain channels because of failure to negotiate terms with those channels? If our providers make us unhappy, or if a competitor comes up with a better deal, we are often limited in how quickly we can react and make a switch. Also, as someone has already pointed out, for those in certain parts of the country, there really is no competition because only one service provider is effectively available in their region.


Posted by:

Al S
28 Jan 2014

I could care less about VOIP, I got plenty of phones, could care less about video chat, there are many free video chat sides, yahoo, AOL etc.


Posted by:

john
28 Jan 2014

"And that users who want to download pirated movies should either get lower priority, or pay more for faster service"?
How about spending more brain cells stopping criminality. Best regards, john.
.


Posted by:

bb
28 Jan 2014

Oh Bob, I think you stepped in it this time, "Should the Internet be regulated?" This isn't a technical issue; this is both a political and business issue. Do we need to force or regulate businesses to "do the right thing" or is business competition sufficient to ensure an equable outcome?
Unfortunately, "do the right thing" is not good business practice. Imagine that, oh, say Real Estate wasn't regulated. We'd have 'Purple-only' communities (substitute your own color) or vastly different prices or mortgage rates depending on your color.
You make three anti-net-neutrality arguments: all are wrong.
First, you suggest that VOIP packets be prioritized over bit torrent packets. There is nothing inherently illegal (immoral or whatever) with bit torrent, why should VOIP be given a free ride over any other type of packet. And yes, I think it's wrong that Comcast reserves a channel for *their* VOIP packets over any other VOIP packets so that their phone calls work better than say, Vonage.
You suggest that bandwidth hogs should be throttled. I agree, but not by false advertising. If an ISP advertises "Unlimited Bandwidth" (taken as download as much as you want) then they should be held to that. Again, Comcast has quietly dropped that phrase (Verizon FiOS has not) and are imposing a cap of 350 GB/month on cable customers in my area. This is absolutely apparent in Cell phone traffic, it is not in cable/fiber traffic. An ISP that advertises unlimited bandwidth should supply that.
Your suggest that IPSs "might" try to block or slow competitive services. There is no "might," Rogers cable in Canada absolutely did, and may still do, exactly this. There is no FCC in Canada. When a cable company has competitive services (I'm looking at you Comcast!) they have every incentive in the world (e.g. lots and lots of money) to slow down, interfere, or other screw up Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and other video streamers because they want those dollars. Unless, of course, they get their cut.
Ok, so if 'they' do that, why not just switch ISPs? BECAUSE THERE ISN'T ANY REAL COMPETITION … IT'S A CABLE MONOPOLY! Huh buddy ... you want your TV from somebody else? Put an antenna on your roof. :-(
That said, wired internet services (Cable, Fiber) is a different market from wireless (Cell phone 4G, etc.) which does have competition. But to my mind, there should not be different rules for the internet regardless if one receives it by a wire or a radio – it should be all the same Internet.
As one of a Libertarian bent,I believe it is necessary to regulate, not the Internet, but the Internet Service *Providers*. And that's the difference – I want free access to the Internet unfettered by my supplier to that resource. Without Net Neutrality it's the third, four, fifth … etc. tier web sites that will lose out. A TWiT, a Revision3, or a Carolla Digital might not be possible without a neutral supplier. Or, an AskBobRankin.


Posted by:

Digital Artist
28 Jan 2014

Cable TV providers, electric utility companies, gas companies (cooking and heating fuel via pipe), water and sewer services, telephone companies, and ISPs are all basically public utilities. In most places they exist without any competition, in places where there is competition, they have only one or two competitors. That is not enough competition for market forces to effect consumer-driven outcomes. A pair or trio of service providers are going to make their own laws unless they are restricted by government regulation. That is one of the many reasons why civilization requires government.


Posted by:

Rick
28 Jan 2014

Abandon hope all ye who enter here.

One need look no further than the FDA and USDA to understand that, regardless of the persuasion of the occupants of the White House, Senate, or Congress, big business has absolute control over government agencies and virtually all elected representatives. If you put your faith and future in the hands any part of government then you might as well just bend over and kiss it goodbye.


Posted by:

David
28 Jan 2014

The problem arises when there are only a few internet "backbones", and they collude among themselves to increase value for their shareholders. I've heard there are six major players, and every year there are fewer as one corporation buys out another. The less competition, the higher the prices and the less the choices.
The internet started as a government project (ARPANET) migrating into the TCP/IP it has become. This was to share knowledge among universities and research facilities. If the internet becomes tiered, this sharing of knowledge may be available only to those who can afford it.


Posted by:

Greg
28 Jan 2014

Mediacom and centurylink already limit the web. I can not get espn3 or ABC because my providor doesn't allow it. Sounds like somebody asked for money to either be carried or provided. What is the story.


Posted by:

Marc de Piolenc
28 Jan 2014

Congratulations. Yours is the only article on the subject (other than my own 'blog post: http://archivale.com/weblog/?p=694) that I've seen so far that actually mentions that Net Neutrality is a coercive solution to a nonexistent problem.
But give the government the power to directly control content forwarding, and you WILL have bias in content handling - and it won't necessarily be the bias that you want. So far, Comcast is the only carrier who has throttled bittorrent traffic, and I have a strong suspicion that the market has since stopped them from doing it because - surprise! - the end users (you know, the people whose money actually pays for the Internet) want to use bittorrent. The Internet is now mostly sustained by private investment competing for private purchases of Internet services; as long as that continues to be true, providers can't get too creative in handling traffic or they will lose revenue.
Imagine your reaction if you went shopping online for a book, say, and the only functional page you could get was Amazon.com. I like Amazon, and frequently buy from them, but if they were the only bookselling resource on the Net I would stop shopping for books online. I would not completely cancel my Internet service as long as email continued to work, because I need it to communicate with clients, but I would buy the lowest and cheapest grade of service that I could get, because the value of the Net would have declined to a tiny fraction of that of an open Net. Multiply my individually inconsequential decision by millions, and you have an economic force to be reckoned with.


Posted by:

Buffet
28 Jan 2014

Elizabeth - I with ya baby. Anyone who didn't sign it is a fool and deserves what they get!!
Stand up for your rights people. Don't let the man dictate what happens to your rights!


Posted by:

bill
28 Jan 2014

You have to be living in Neverland to believe that entities such as Google, Microsoft or some upstart ISP would actually do the right thing rather than play a little cut throat to get an edge. Why should they be any different than any other part of American. That's the equivalent to posting a speed limit and hoping everyone will observe it without the threat of a trooper around the next bend in the road.


Posted by:

Neil in VA
28 Jan 2014

Salim asks for Bob to put together a form letter on this subject and I agree - what do you think of the following?:
Adapting from what Bob wrote I came up with the following -
Senator XXXXXXXX
Representative XXXXXXXX

On January 14, 2014, a U.S. federal appeals court struck down the FCC’s Net Neutrality directive.

Since Net Neutrality assures that Internet service providers should not be allowed to speed up, slow down or block certain types of Internet
traffic. That means that my services might be impaired by an ISP who decides that a content provider's services can be arbitrarily delayed, enhanced or otherwise interfered with.

Please create or support legislation to assure that the FCC has the power to block abuses of market power caused by the bad behavior of Internet service and content providers.

This can be done either through limited regulatory powers (with Congressional oversight) or by the application of anti-trust principles. Please assure that the FCC has the necessary power to prevent abuses by Internet service and content providers.

Demand that they consider the possible unintended consequences, and consult with unbiased technical experts before doing so.

Thank you,
Name
City, State
==============================
Comments anyone?


Posted by:

petefior
28 Jan 2014

Hi Bob: I agree with the previous comment by Narada that your contrasting arguments for Pro and Anti-Neutrality were not balanced. The pro-neutrality arguments were alarmist rather than some more thoughtful ones that I have below:

Small Startups Could Be Hurt:
If network neutrality is killed, small companies and startups could find themselves at a competitive disadvantage. Internet service providers would have to offload the cost of major sites to smaller ones, effectively limiting the chances for small Web companies to grow into giants. Perhaps that's why so many in Silicon Valley are so upset with the recent ruling.

Competition on the Web Could Suffer:
If service providers start throttling bandwidth or increasing bandwidth costs based on usage, some smaller companies could have trouble growing their traffic or paying the higher costs. If the ruling stands, it effectively paves the way for ISPs to charge companies for their bandwidth usage and could conceivably slow down connections to certain sites.

Big Web Companies Will Prosper No Matter What:
There's a general belief in the industry that major Web companies, like Google, could actually prosper if network neutrality is struck down. There's a sense that Google, Facebook and others, being the service providers' best customers, won't have to deal with any bandwidth restrictions and can afford to pay any increased service charges in any event. Only smaller Web companies will suffer.

Lets face it - the big guys almost always behave badly without regulation - history shows us that
very clearly! We need to protect the small entrepreneurs to encourage innovation and competition in our free market system. This is not a new idea - the anti-trust laws were first passed almost a century ago.


Posted by:

Charles
30 Jan 2014

Bob, I can say your article was informative.

I don't agree about VOIP. It should not be prioritized on the internet, nor should video-chat or the like.

I am not a fan of prioritzing anything that would bog down the flow of the bit-rates on the Internet; if that includes Netflix, then so be it.

I also do not favor any form of throttling by any ISP, for any reason.


Posted by:

gina
31 Jan 2014

I agree with Maggie. In the area where I just moved from, Comcast had the monopoly on internet service. If you wanted to use any other ISP, ie Click Network, Verizon, etc you could not get a signal in the Comcast "zone".

As for Bit Torrent, it was a convenience for some people who - surprise - can't get broadband in their areas. They could get a movie, or music or pdf. It's funny how people who never used BitTorrent have an opinion on what it was used for.


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