The concept of "net neutrality" has been around for a while, and it's one that today's Internet users pretty much take for granted. It boils down to two principles: Internet users should be free to visit any (legal) websites they like, and Internet service providers (ISPs) should provide equal service to every legal website. In short: Everything (and everyone) is treated equally going through the pipe. This is largely the way things have worked until now. An ISP offers equal access to CNN and MSNBC, to the Ku Klux Klan and the Southern Poverty Law Center, to the world's biggest newspapers and to any blogger who has something to say.
That may be about to change. The federal D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this year invalidated two Internet rules — one that prevented ISPs from charging companies to carry their data, and another that prevented Internet providers from blocking users from legal sites. The decision cast new light on the concept of net neutrality, and it drew further scrutiny when President Barack Obama suggested last month that the public Internet be subject to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) oversight under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934.
"I believe the FCC should create a new set of rules protecting net neutrality and ensuring that neither the cable company nor the phone company will be able to act as a gatekeeper, restricting what you can do or see online," Obama said. "The rules I am asking for are simple, common-sense steps that reflect the Internet you and I use every day, and that some ISPs already observe."
While some characterized this as a government power grab or a threat to speech (Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz called it "Obamacare for the Internet," presumably on the theory that anything with Obama's name attached would be unpopular), the opposite is true. Without net neutrality, the core principle of unfettered Internet access will be threatened on several fronts.
Allowing ISPs to charge more to access certain websites or to limit user access is the real "radical" — and stifling — move.
First, if net neutrality isn't enacted, ISPs could "bundle" access to certain websites the way cable companies bundle premium channel packages. For example, you might pay $50 a month for "basic" Internet access — but you may have to pay more to access ESPN or The New York Times. Second, some ISPs would like to charge streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime to carry their streams — a cost that would be passed to customers who already pay for that service. Third, ISPs could speed up or slow down any service at will. Comcast, for instance, which owns NBC, could provide a "fast lane" to NBC News and NBC programming while slowing down ("throttling") competing networks.
If you think this is far-fetched, think again. The Canadian telecom Telus once blocked access to a website organized and run by its own striking workers. More recently, AT&T Mobile wanted to block Apple's FaceTime app (which provides free phone and video calls over the Internet) unless customers ponied up extra money to AT&T.
Opponents of net neutrality say it would stifle the growth of the telecommunications industry. In 2010, U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Metairie, said regulation would "discourage Internet investment and innovation." Scalise, now House Majority Whip, is expected to be one of the leaders in the fight against net neutrality. Last month he said net neutrality would have "a chilling effect on the Internet" and called the proposal "radical." We disagree. Government regulation hasn't hurt telecommunications companies; in fact, that industry has thrived under reasonable government regulation. In our view, allowing ISPs to charge more to access certain websites or to limit user access is the real "radical" — and stifling — move.
If you're still unsure about this issue, look at the organizations that support and oppose net neutrality: telecoms, which stand to profit from eliminating net neutrality, are against it, while Internet-based companies and civil liberties groups largely support it. A study last month by the University of Delaware's Center for Political Communications found that 81 percent of Americans oppose "allowing Internet service providers to charge some websites ... extra for faster speeds." The CPC study also found that the more people know about net neutrality, the more they are likely to support it.
Congress has delayed discussion of net neutrality until 2015. If unfettered access to the Internet matters to you, now is the time to contact your congressional representatives and let them know how you feel. More than 4 million Americans already have.