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Confused about why your friends are flipping out over net neutrality and badgering you on Facebook to sign some petition? Confused about what net neutrality is or why you should care? We’ve put together a short, in-no-way-comprehensive guide to this complicated issue:
What is net neutrality?
Net neutrality is the idea that Internet service providers should treat traffic equally without blocking or discriminating against competitors’ websites or services.
Why is everyone upset about this right now?
Federal regulators are considering new “Open Internet” rules that would prohibit Internet providers from blocking traffic or applications.
Some people are worried because Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler’s net neutrality proposal would also allow Internet providers to sell content providers fast lanes to consumers. They worry creating a fast lane/slow lane system violates the spirit of the Internet and would hurt smaller content providers that couldn’t afford to pay.
Why is this an issue now?
There is very little regulation of Internet lines right now, which makes a lot of people nervous because they don’t trust big phone and cable companies. They worry that, given the chance, those companies will stifle competitors and play favorites online.
Comcast*, AT&T, Verizon and other Internet providers say they won’t block competing websites or apps and will abide by nondiscrimination principles. Net neutrality advocates don’t believe them. They want the FCC to be able to take action if ISPs start discriminating against websites or services.
What is Title II?
When net neutrality advocates talk about “reclassifying Internet lines under Title II,” they’re referring to a section of the Communications Act that was written with old phone networks in mind.
Title II requires phone companies to smoothly transfer phone calls to one another. But it also includes a dizzying collection of other obligations, most notably taxes, rate regulations and requirements that so-called “common carriers” provide wholesale access to competitors at reasonable rates. (Columbia University’s Tim Wu, who coined the phrase “net neutrality,” has a more complete explanation here.)
Internet lines were regulated by the FCC under Title II until 2002, when the Bush-era FCC opted to de-regulate Internet lines and call them an “information service.” From that point forward, Internet providers were free to operate their networks as they saw fit. It was around that time that people began talking about the need for net neutrality protections for Internet lines.
Have there been examples of Internet providers blocking traffic?
There’s only been one obvious violation.
A few years ago, a network engineer accused Comcast of blocking some traffic on the file-sharing service BitTorrent. Comcast said a few subscribers were taking up a disproportionate amount of bandwidth, so the company slowed them down so they wouldn’t affect other nearby customers. There was a public backlash, the FCC investigated, the company ended up settling a lawsuit and changing its policies for dealing with heavy-bandwidth users.
More recently, in 2012, AT&T blocked iPhone users on unlimited data plans from using the FaceTime video app on its cellular network (although users could still use it on Wi-Fi), which also raised some net neutrality concerns. The company said it was worried about FaceTime users clogging up its wireless network. AT&T later lifted the ban but began phasing out all-you-can-eat data plans from its consumer offerings.
How would I know if my Internet is being slowed or blocked?
You probably wouldn’t. Despite all of the highway analogies, the Internet isn’t really like a road. You can see congestion on the highway and usually figure out why (car wreck, annoying people slowing down to look at the car wreck, etc.). It’s virtually impossible for an ordinary person to figure out why her Netflix movie is still buffering or why his Skype call is pixelated.
There are a few online services which will let you test your connection, but the results may not be very meaningful.
How does this affect consumers?
Practically speaking, it doesn’t.
There haven’t been net neutrality rules in effect for months — ever since a federal appeals court rejected the FCC’s old net neutrality rules in January — and there haven’t been complaints about blocked or slowed traffic that we know of. (To be fair, you might not know if your traffic is slowed or blocked — see “How do I know if my Internet is being slowed or blocked?” above.) It could mean higher prices in the future if content companies opted to pay for fast-lane speeds and passed along the added costs to subscribers.
Comcast is the only Internet provider still operating under the FCC’s old net neutrality rules (thanks to an NBCUniversal merger condition), so they aren’t allowed to block or discriminate against competitors’ traffic. Other Internet providers say they don’t block or slow traffic.
There has been a related issue involving how Netflix video traffic is routed which has caused consumer complaints about slow-loading videos. That issue has diminished somewhat after Netflix cut commercial deals with a few Internet providers to improve their customer experience.
How does this affect content providers or startups?
This could be a problem for you.
You could be facing a world where you have a choice to get on a fast lane into customer homes. Depending on the service you provide, that could be attractive. Internet video, gaming and cloud storage services are just a few sectors that could conceivably be interested in getting faster lanes to consumers. Whether they want to pay Comcast, AT&T and other Internet providers for that sort of FedEx-like service is a different matter.
Why wouldn’t you want all Internet traffic to be equal?
Internet traffic has really never been entirely equal and most people have been okay with that (or didn’t know the difference). Some Internet data is simply more time-sensitive than others. Are you going to get mad if your Hulu video gets delivered a little more quickly than an email? If you get Internet phone service from Comcast or Cox, it’s okay that they prioritize those bits, right?
Those examples generally fall under the category of reasonable network management. Net neutrality advocates worry about what they consider unreasonable network management — like blocking or slowing competitors’ content.
Why do Democrats tend to like net neutrality and Republicans hate it?
Everyone — Republican or Democrat — seems to like the Internet the way it is right now (although most people would like faster speeds and lower monthly bills).
Republicans are generally suspicious of the FCC adopting and enforcing net neutrality rules because many of them think the agency is inept. They say it will impede future investments in networks and don’t think regulators can keep up with fast-changing markets. Also, there haven’t been many consumer complaints.
Democrats generally want stronger net neutrality rules because they think government needs to protect consumers and content providers from Internet providers. They worry ISPs will discriminate against competitors without oversight and the threat of punishment.
What happens next?
The FCC is set to vote Thursday on Wheeler’s net neutrality proposal. The public will have a chance to comment on it until September, an FCC official said Tuesday. The proposal has changed over the past two weeks as Internet companies, consumers and net neutrality activists have flooded the agency with complaints.
What you see Thursday may be less of a definitive proposal than a vehicle for the agency to ask questions (again) about what it should do. That just puts off the hard task of crafting net neutrality rules until this fall (most likely after the November midterm election).
* Comcast owns NBCUniversal, which is an investor in Revere Digital, Re/code’s parent company.