A Basic Guide to Net Neutrality

By: Abby McNeece

The growth of using the Internet for everything from entertainment to academic research has created a demand to limit the commercial influences that can affect the access to internet content.  Net neutrality has been offered as a step to limit the power of Internet Service Providers (ISP’s) to use their commercial influence to limit access to their customers.
 

Net neutrality has been defined by Merriam-Webster as, “the idea, principle, or requirement that Internet service providers should or must treat all Internet data as the same regardless of its kind, source, or destination.” Adjacent to this definition, Sarah Rabil, the assistant managing editor for the Wall Street Journal, states, “…a philosophical contest that's being fought under the banner of ‘net neutrality,’ a slogan that inspires rhetorical devotion but eludes precise definition. Broadly, it means everything on the Internet should be equally accessible—that the Internet should be a place where great ideas compete on equal terms with big money.”


Supporters for net neutrality claim that the laws will prevent Internet Service Providers (ISP’s) from charging extra fees for accessing certain sites. For example, ISPs, with no net neutrality laws in place, would be able to charge consumers extra money to visit a site like Netflix, YouTube or Twitter. In “The pros and cons of net neutrality”, at ITPro, the observation was made that, “[Net neutrality] also prevents the possibility of providers charging end users an extra fee to access vital services, like online banking or email, or entertainment platforms like gaming networks (or of the owners of these services from passing their costs onto end users).” 


In addition, Samantha Masunaga and Jim Puzzanghera, from the LA Times wrote in, “Here’s who’ll benefit—and who might not—if net neutrality is repealed as expected,” “…supporters of net neutrality say consumers could be charged extra to stream certain content if they don’t want to be hampered by network congestion. Others have warned that customer choice of internet service providers could shrink and prices of broadband service could increase.”

 
The IT Pro Team also wrote, “Google can't pay for faster access to their websites, and a tiny video streaming service should in theory be as speedy and glitch-free as Netflix. Net neutrality squashes the potential for internet fast lanes, where internet service providers can charge content creators for enough bandwidth to deliver their service properly.” These costs would hurt small businesses and start-ups and would likely lead to the consumer having to be charged more money for the service or product. 

One interesting argument of the ISPs refers to charging the companies more money, such as YouTube or Google. These websites use lots of bandwidth, meaning the ISPs must spend more money to keep the website up. If they were able to charge money to the individual companies, then the ISPs argue that then there would be more innovation for new services. However, reports are conflicting on whether this is true or not. For example, Klint Finley, from WIRED, states in  “The FCC Says Net Neutrality Cripples Investment. That's Not True.”, “[T]he [Federal Communications Commission] cites industry-funded studies concluding that investment in internet infrastructure declined 3 percent in 2015 and another 2 percent in 2016. The proposal also claims that internet providers delayed new offerings, such as home-wireless plans or streaming video services.” 

On the contrary, Finley further recognizes, “[T]he nation's largest internet provider actually increased its spending during this period, as did several other companies. Others cut spending, but said the drops stemmed from completion of longer-term plans.” So, while investment in internet infrastructure may have dropped for some ISPs, the largest one actually increased its spending. 
 

Finley also identifies another claim by the FCC that, “The FCC says repealing the net-neutrality rules will remove ‘regulatory uncertainty’ for broadband providers, and encourage them to boost spending. But the proposal will increase uncertainty for other internet companies, most notably small content providers, who may face stiff fees to distribute their work—and in some cases may not even try.”
 

Opponents to net neutrality claim that unregulated access to Internet content could lead to free access. Thanks to people paying more fees for an ISP’s services, other people who couldn’t afford internet would be able to receive it for free. This helps boost the world wide web, as these people can experience the joys of online accessibility and other modern amenities, which are vital in today’s society, without having to pay a large sum of money for them. 
 

The FCC, or Federal Communications Commission, posts a yearly report with statistics involving how many people still do not have internet. According to the FCC’s website, 6% of the United States population, or over 19 million people, does not have access to “fixed broadband service at threshold speeds.” Now, imagine what ISPs could do with the extra money to build infrastructure and new internet lines so that these people can receive internet access. 
 

The same report recognizes that over 100 million Americans have access to internet but do not currently subscribe to broadband. Those Americans experience diminished connectivity which also drives up costs of their internet usage, which supporters of net neutrality say ISPs will do, and consequently drive more people off the internet.
In the end, it’s important to be aware of all the facts, because advocates on both sides of the issue and politicians will often spin or distort the facts to make a case for their argument. Their positions, however, have grains of truth, but it comes to each individual to grasp those truths and follow them to solid conclusions.