Explaining Net Neutrality

05 December 2016

Net Neutrality is the idea that all data on the Internet, regardless of who it comes from, its political affiliation, company, or who’s consuming it, should be treated the same way and should move at the same speed. We’ve enjoyed a mostly-neutral Internet for some time now, which is what has allowed the Internet to become an important means for moving information around the world. A neutral Internet is also the reason it’s easy for new companies to get up and running online and find their customers. It’s difficult to explain well in a short blog post the importance of a neutral Internet, so be sure to take a look at the links throughout for more information.

At a glance, it can be difficult to understand why Net Neutrality matters, in particular because we’ve never seen a non-neutral Internet. A non-neutral Internet can even seem appealing from the marketing suggestions that service providers publish, in that you can pay only for what you need. Unfortunately, service providers themselves are far from neutral. If you like, or take issue with channels such as NBC, CNBC, MSNBC, FOX, or other major media outlets, you should be aware that they either own, or are owned by, service providers. Let’s take a look at a few commonly known ones:

This is far from an exhaustive list; the intent was to highlight the fact that major media companies are not neutral. Considering the (generally) limited number of cable and Internet service providers in most areas, it’s not terribly unlikely that your Internet and cable is provided by a company with opinions that differ from yours. Further, a number of online and even print publications are owned by the same companies. If your cable or Internet service provider isn’t in that list, there’s a fair chance that it’s still owned by one of those companies. Still other companies are able to exert control over service providers due to their sheer size; companies such as Disney, Viacom, and others you might not even consider such as GE.

Net Neutrality protects consumers from the positions that these media companies may hold by requiring them to not only allow you to see other viewpoints from theirs, but to allow you to access them just as easily. It’s reasonable to assume that the United States would protect that fact by law, but we don’t. In fact, in 2014, the government agency that normally enforces that was stripped of its power to enforce it through their normal means. Further, the sheer size of these companies, and the fact that they often have regional monopolies on the services they provide, means there is limited competition to fight the problem from a business standpoint.

If Net Neutrality sees its end, those companies have the ability to control what you see. Most of us have seen channels (usually temporarily) disappear from our cable lineup because of disputes with companies over money and contracts. We would see more of that, and we would see it carry over to online content. In the 2016 election we saw huge amounts of fake news from both sides; but we had the ability to fact check it. That isn’t the case when the company providing your access limits what you’re able to see.

When corporations have the ability to control the information that areas of the country have access to, it breaks democracy. Democracy only works with an informed populace; a populace that can be convinced to be divided and one whose opinions are manipulated is far easier for an authoritarian government to control. Alternatively, it also becomes possible for a very small elite to control elections by manipulating what people see. Many of us use the Internet to stay informed about what’s happening in the world around us and we need to make sure the Internet remains a neutral place to do that. And, if nothing else, a non-neutral Internet allows service providers to charge far more for delivering Internet service, something which has a 97% profit margin already.

For more resources on Net Neutrality, see also:

Interested in net neutrality? Check out my book, Please Upgrade for Access, at book.thenaterhood.com.

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