What Net Neutrality Means for You

Posted by Matt Farmer on December 21, 2010 · 4 mins read

Only four years after we were informed that the Internet isn’t a big truck, the FCC has passed some rules to formalize Net Neutrality, and the response has stirred up naysayers on both sides of the court.

There are those who are coming to the defense of freedom on the Internet who insist that the resolution doesn’t go far enough. Others insist that the FCC has overstepped its bounds, and they threaten to prevent the FCC from finding any funding to finance the enforcement of the rules they approved today. But what does Net Neutrality and the recent FCC rules mean for you, the average Internet citizen?

In essence, the idea of Net Neutrality is the concept of keeping the Internet a level playing field for business opportunity. In its purest form it aims to give Joe the Webmaster as much opportunity to expand his business on the web as Bill Gates by outlawing the ability for Internet Service Providers (those people that hook you up to the tubes) to favor one over the other. If we had a truly Neutral Network, enforced by laws, it would be illegal for ISPs to do this in any form.

Imagine if when Blockbuster launched a mail-to-home DVD service, Netflix paid a fee to the US Postal Service to have all Netflix DVDs arrive two days sooner than all Blockbuster DVDs. Or even pay the USPS to occasionally “loose” a Blockbuster DVD. As a customer would you be more likely to subscribe to the Netflix service or the Blockbuster service? It isn’t a difficult question. You would likely never be aware of the wrongdoing going on behind the scenes. You would just know that Netflix seems to get there faster, and that type of difference in perception can make or break businesses.

How the rules fall short…

The FCC rules passed today fall short in a number of ways, most of them involving the exceptions that are made to special “classes” of services. The PC World report gives the most concise summary that I found.

In essence, mobile service providers (basically, the cellphone companies) are exempt from the rules. They are allowed to throttle their networks as they see fit. I do not particularly have a problem with this. Wireless bandwidth is something that will always be an issue. There’s only a limited amount of space in the air. It’s more of an engineering issue, from my point of view (but please let me know if you have the expertise to tell me differently).

Further, managed services are exempt from the rules. These managed services will most often take the form of things like Video On Demand on your cable box (yes, that uses the Internet these days). Unfortunately, this means that if Charter Communications wanted to throttle all connections to Netflix or iTunes and made their own Video Rental service (and made it fast) – they could do that.

If I haven’t convinced you that this is important yet, please let me know.

The Future of Net Neutrality

The future of Net Neutrality is uncertain. The FCC vote was divided along party lines, so it is almost certain that there will be a backlash from Republicans shortly. However, President Obama has endorsed the measure. I seem to recall there being something in his campaign about embracing open-internet policies, so I guess we’ll see how important it is to him when the Republicans decide to put on the heat.

Critics insist that we’re trying to deal with a problem that isn’t actually a problem and that legislation shouldn’t be put in place until it actually becomes a problem. I would argue that it seems to me this argument is somewhat silly. Did we have to wait for the first theft or murder to outlaw those? Preemptive actions have their merits.