Net Neutrality Explained: How it Could Affect You

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It's been written about nearly everywhere by now, but it is crucial that everyone who uses the internet really understands what Net Neutrality is all about. We have until September to let the FCC know how we feel about this issue, and it may seem like a long way off, but we're running out of time.

A controversial debate has developed between big and small online entities regarding the control of online data. This debate has actually been going on for over a decade but in recent years it has become a hot issue with Congress, the FCC and the internet community. 

At the heart of the controversy is whether or not cable companies and internet service providers such as Comcast should have the ability to control internet content, applications, traffic and pricing on internet use volume and speeds. The following arguments from both sides examine why this issue is gaining national coverage and how it affects internet service providers, website owners and internet users.

Proponent Arguments
• Equal treatment of online data
• Discourages discrimination of services based on fee structures
• Internet users and content providers maintain free expression
• Prevents online monopolies and artificially limited supply of content 

Opponent Arguments
• Eliminating net neutrality will encourage competition among ISPs
• ISPs are not planning on blocking content or reducing network performance
• ISPs can monitor and block illegal activities
• Different price points for quality of services is more reflective of capitalism

Internet Service Providers
Net neutrality advocates are pushing to make cable companies common carriers that provide free cable access to ISPs in a similar manner in which dial-up internet was set up. Meanwhile, opponents want the option to filter content and preserve bandwidth. Allowing ISPs to prioritize services and provide reserved network capacity for specific customers is at the center of this discussion.

Essentially, if the status quo of net neutrality is diminished, the argument goes it will allow telecoms and ISPs to become content gatekeepers that police internet activity, while raising fees on higher quality services instead of treating all web properties equally. 

Some of the key concepts that the FCC is currently reviewing involve how faster internet speed access can help content providers and what role government should play in providing better broadband coverage. In April 2014, FCC Commissioner Tom Wheeler announced at the NCTA's Cable Show in Los Angeles that he supports an open internet and denied that cable operators would get an internet fast lane.

Content Providers and Internet Users
If internet content and activity is overseen by big corporate gatekeepers, the fear is it could reduce the number of independent news sites (because they would not have reduced rates, no matter how popular they got) and may even limit innovative web development. On the other hand, allowing telecoms and ISPs more oversight could help copyright and intellectual property owners protect their works better. It could also help law enforcement track down criminals easier.

Leading proponents for network neutrality believe that internet users should be able to control their own online content and applications and use them as they like, within the law.

Users may be directly affected if the government via the FCC moves toward the gatekeeper model because favorite websites could disappear. Net neutrality proponents argue that a handful of big companies might take over the internet the way a short list of giant companies own the cable TV industry. Opponents contend that bandwidth is a limited resource, making it necessary for different pricing tiers.

Free Market Questions
Each side takes a stance that they represent the free market while claiming the other side will reduce freedoms. Net neutrality proponents favor democratization of web content so that small websites can serve their niches while opponents lean toward quality control of content.

The question that remains is how will government and technology influence web content and web traffic? The FCC adopted open internet rules in 2010, which were overruled in January 2014 by the U.S. Court of Appeals. The commission drafted new rules in April and the revised plan was approved on May 15th, 2014. With the new plan now available for public comment, it is important that anyone who will be affected by this change review the plan and make their opinion known.

You can email comments to openinternet@fcc.gov or post them on the fcc website.