It’s not you. “Net neutrality” is confusing. In 2003, law professor Tim Wu coined the term, which captures the idea that the Internet should be an impartial conduit for the information that travels through it. As broadband Internet has replaced dial-up in the United States, the Federal Communications Commission has struggled to come up with rules to make sure high-speed Internet service providers adhere to the principle of “neutrality.” Fans and foes of net neutrality both say that if they don’t get their way, the Internet will be ruined. But will it?
The Internet was born on the United States’ heavily regulated telephone networks, required by law to serve as “common carriers” ferrying phone traffic back and forth no matter where it starts or finishes. As the Internet moved from dial-up to high-speed connections, the George W. Bush administration opted to formally begin treating broadband cable Internet as a more lightly regulated “information service.” But the FCC continued upholding the principle that the Internet should remain open and neutral. And it has never stopped. Under the Obama administration, the FCC has tried writing hard-and-fast rules to make neutrality the law of the land. In January, a court threw out how the commission wrote those rules, which is why the FCC is at it again.
Nearly everything we love about the Internet was created while abiding by the spirit of net neutrality — which helps explain why some people are rallying with such fervor to defend it.
The debate over net neutrality has been set up as a sky-is-falling crisis; the lead pro-neutrality group is even called “Save the Internet.” But the real worry isn’t that the Internet will change overnight. It’s that the Internet will enter a slow downward spiral.
On a neutral Internet, if two college kids want to start, say, a video-based educational service, they can simply set up their website and compete with anyone. But without strict neutrality rules in place, they might face the choice of having to pay Internet service providers to get the same fast, efficient distribution that, for example, Facebook can afford. Their scrappy start-up video service runs well enough, but customers are drawn to speedier, flashier websites and apps. These young entrepreneurs eventually give up. And knowing of their struggles, the next generation of would-be online entrepreneurs doesn’t even bother trying. The Internet loses the experimentation that has long been its hallmark.
That stagnation wouldn’t happen overnight. But if it did happen, it would be difficult to reverse.
Traditionally, the FCC has shied away from dictating how ISPs should run their networks, in part out of a fear that if those companies felt micromanaged, they’d stop building broadband — a painful possibility given that as it is, many places in the United States have, at best, two choices of broadband Internet providers. But that’s not quite the risk it once was. The past five years alone have seen new network options spring up, from Kansas City’s Google Fiber connection to municipal broadband in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Each offers a gigantic one-gigabit connection for the same price you’re probably paying for something slower at home. Those next-generation choices are hardly ubiquitous. But they do start to chip away at the idea that today’s big providers will always hold all the cards.
“For a Google or a Yahoo or a Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes for free is nuts!” the chief executive of SBC Communications said in 2005. That sort of talk has fed the idea that the neutrality debate is a fight between Big Content and Big Telecom.
But it’s the online grass-roots that has kept the vision of a neutral Internet alive for nearly a decade, with assists from advocacy groups such as Free Press and Consumers Union, and tech leaders such as Reddit’s Alexis Ohanian and Craigslist’s Craig Newmark. They’ve taken a highly technical — and arguably poorly branded — idea and turned it into a statement of values. As Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who created the World Wide Web in the late 1980s and is a vocal net neutrality advocate, has said, being able to connect freely and equally to the Internet “is the fundamental social basis of the Internet, and, now, the society based on it.”
Net neutrality has, to a remarkable degree, captured the public imagination. At a meeting with the public last month, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler thanked “those who felt so strongly about the issue that they camped outside.” And FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn has talked about getting a call from her mother, worrying about the future of the Internet. “In my 16 years as a public servant, Emily Clyburn has never called me about a substantive issue under consideration,” the commissioner said in a recent statement. “. . . Her inquiry truly echoes the calls, emails and letters I have received from thousands of consumers, investors, startups, healthcare providers, educators and others across the country who are equally concerned and confused.”
That’s never been true. Wu said himself in his 2003 law journal article, “Neutrality, as a concept, is finicky.” For one thing, even allies on the pro-regulation side of the debate haven’t settled on one definition of “net neutrality.” For some, it means treating, say, Web page traffic exactly the same as email. For others, it simply means handling every bit of the same kind of Internet content the same way. Then there are those who see it as just a ban on ISPs blocking some websites or services.
What’s more, the network engineers who handle the nuts-and-bolts management of the Internet are regularly called upon to make decisions to keep traffic flowing smoothly. “Network design,” as Wu wrote, “is an exercise in tradeoffs.” The net neutrality debate isn’t black and white. Participating in it fully means wading into those shades of gray.