by Abigail Quackenboss
Last month a court ruling went largely unnoticed, especially by the people whom we would expect to care most about it: internet users. What was the ruling? Net neutrality was overturned. Now, I am by no means an expert on Net neutrality. In fact, before being assigned to write this blog, I’d never heard of it. But it’s definitely a concept that has broader implications. Consider this your crash-course in Net neutrality.
What is Net neutrality?
Net neutrality was designed to keep the playing field level for all websites. It required that Internet service providers (ISPs) give all websites the same level of priority when sending information on the Web. For example, when Net neutrality was in effect, an ISP such as Verizon, Comcast, or Cox Cable could not give preferential treatment to websites that they held a stake in.
In layman’s terms, please.
Basically, now that Net neutrality is out the window, ISPs could discriminate against internet companies or internet users. Your ISP can decide how much speed they will award each site. For example, video streaming sites such as YouTube, Hulu, or Netflix are likely to be impacted because they are bandwidth hogs. For example, during primetime, Netflix accounts for about 32% of data being sent to users. You might not be able to watch the next season of House of Cards at the drop of a hat. Instead, because your ISP can now throttle the bandwidth for Netflix data, your binge watching session might take a lot more than the 14 hours of actual programming. It might seem like the days of dial-up, waiting for videos to buffer. The instantaneousness of a site may be lost. In theory this could impact more than just how much you pay for internet. It could also impact what sites you can see. Trying to view a site that doesn’t align with the mission of the ISP? Would it be a coincidence if that site loaded at a snail’s pace? Could this be a way for companies to censor content?
That sounds awful.
It really does. And the greater implications sound even worse. In order to get back to the internet speed that you enjoy, or is at least more tolerable, ISPs may require users to pay. That’s right. If you thought you were paying a lot for Internet already, ISPs could potentially offer tiered packages. Want to watch a funny cat video on YouTube? $.50 per video. Want unlimited access to your favorite shows and movies on Netflix? With the ISPs in control, they could charge whatever they want, especially if you are opting to stream from a site they don’t host. (For example, NBC has stake in Hulu. Theoretically, Comcast, which owns NBC, can give preferential treatment to Hulu over Netflix.) And to throw another wrench into it all, have you considered how ISPs would know which sites to slow down for you personally? (Hint: They’re not the NSA, but they might be watching what you search for and do on the internet.)
So when should I expect my Internet rate to go up?
Well, here’s the sort-of bright side: ISPs have assured us that this court ruling will not impact how they provide internet service.
That’s reassuring. (Sarcasm.)
I know it’s not. Luckily, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is considering a number of other options to this ruling. The FCC could appeal the decision. They could also reclassify what broadband is. (Under the 2010 rules, Broadband wasn’t a tradition service provider like your telephone.) The ruling from a few weeks ago said that under the current (2010) classification, the FCC didn’t have the authority to enforce Net neutrality.
Why are ISPs arguing against Net neutrality?
First, there is the argument that some people just use more than their share of the bandwidth to go on their Netflix binges. Shouldn’t they be charged more if they’re using more than an Internet user who is simply checking their email once a week? There’s also the argument that in order to keep up with technology to keep improving Internet speeds for sites such as YouTube and Netflix, companies have to charge more for the improvement costs. Finally, there is the argument that Net neutrality is limiting competition. If a user can get around having to pay more to watch their Netflix, they will.
Could this have any implications on the 2014 midterm elections?
Could I win the lottery? Of course it could. Will it? I’m not an expert on elections, but I going to guess this will not be the hot button issue of the year. Congress seems to have bigger fish to fry. That’s not to say they are ignoring Net neutrality completely. In fact, Democrats have introduced legislation that will temporarily bar ISPs from breaking old Net neutrality rules until the FCC is able to get it together to create their own rules or re-categorize. It’s not certain whether these bills will pass in both houses, but at least it is a glimmer of hope.
President Obama has also made statements in support of Net neutrality, so consumers have that working for them as well. I think (well, maybe it’s mostly wishful thinking) that we will eventually see Net neutrality return. It will just be a matter of time. Hopefully the ISPs don’t get any big ideas in the meantime.