Net Neutrality and why it really matters...in 900 words.
Net Neutrality is a phrase that’s been in the news a lot lately, and it’s not a simple thing to explain. But often, important things are not simple things. Net neutrality matters to anyone who uses or will use the internet, whether at home or at places like public libraries, schools or community organizations.
Full disclosure: I am not an expert on net neutrality. I’ll do my best here to give a simplified explanation of the issue and link to sources that explain the situation more fully. Net neutrality is important to libraries and library users. We are not neutral on net neutrality, so this is not an unbiased post.
What is net neutrality?
As things stand today, everything that happens on the internet happens at the same speed. The activist blogger, the artist, the toddler playing video games and the tech giants like Google, Facebook and Netflix are all on the same highway, reaching their users at the same speeds. This is net neutrality, also called the “open internet.” All players are on the same playing field. All lanes proceed at the same speed, traffic jams and all. Here’s a short video to get you caught up.
What is the proposal to change net neutrality?
The companies who provide internet service are known as Internet Service Providers or ISPs; Comcast and CenturyLink are examples of ISPs in the Denver area. ISPs are proposing to the FCC (the Federal Communications Commission) to speed up internet content that can pay them to be in the fast lane, which in effect would slow down content that couldn’t pay to be in the fast lane. So content providers with big bucks, for instance tech giants, media corporations and big brands could pay more to have their stuff delivered how we expect it (think fast and smooth), while smaller content providers (think little guys) wouldn’t have enough money to get their content to users in a way that they will want to have it (think endless buffering and problems loading).
How would this affect interneting as we know it?
And as we all know, if you’re trying to access a page that takes forever to load, chances are you’ll move on and find something else that doesn’t make you wait. So ultimately, the fear is that the voices of all those people and companies who can’t afford the fast lane (aka you and me, the average Joe and Jane) will be effectively silenced, our digital creations stuck on a perpetual “loading” icon that drives visitors away. The implications for start-ups and innovation are far-reaching -- will the next geeks in a garage writing code be unable to get their amazing product to us because they can’t afford life in the fast lane? Will awesome online education sites like Khan Academy, CommonCraft and others be forever doomed because users won’t wait for their pages to load?
Who are the major players and what do they want?
Content providers- The companies and individuals who put stuff online. If you’ve ever written a status update, started a blog, posted photos online or built a website you fall into this category, along with the usual Silicon Valley suspects like Facebook, Google, Netflix, Hulu, etc. Content providers want net neutrality to remain intact. They don’t want to have to pay ISPs more for their content to be delivered faster. This is a case where the giants and the plebes are on the same side of the fence.
Users- us! We the people! Anyone now, or at any point in the future, who uses the internet on any device, period. Increasingly, this means literally ALL OF US. In the near future, no one will be entirely offline.
ISPs aka Internet Service Providers- These are the companies like Comcast, Time Warner and CenturyLink that everyone, meaning both content providers and users, pays in exchange for internet. They are the Big Winner$$ if net neutrality goes away; they get to charge more to both content creators as well as users. To muddy the waters, several ISPs are also media corporations (Comcast owns NBC which owns Hulu, a popular internet TV site). Guess who’s never going to have problems loading video if ISPs have their way?
The FCC aka the Federal Communications Commission- The federal agency that oversees national and international communication via radio TV, wire, satellite and cable; the internet falls into that last category, so the FCC basically regulates the internet in the US.
What’s going on right now, and what can you do?
Last Thursday the FCC moved to open up the proposed changes (creating a fast lane) to public comment. We have until July 15, 2014, to submit our comments to the FCC. You can do so directly at the FCC's site, through organizations hoping to leverage the power of many voices or directly with the White House. It also never hurts to put your congress person on speed dial to make extra sure the people in power get the message.
This is complicated stuff, but it’s important. The internet is now how people communicate and is vital to our educational and democratic process, not to mention all those blooper gifs. A future in which those with the most buying power dictate national discourse and culture is not a free future. So please, add your voice to the outcry and let the FCC know that you want net neutrality preserved for the ages.