Why Net Neutrality Matters

by Kate Weiss

Service providers (or ISPs) don’t discriminate between bits of data--this is one of the basic building blocks of the internet. No matter where the data is coming from or what website you are looking at, the data going to your computer is treated the same by your internet service provider. So whether you are watching Netflix or checking to see if a book is available at your local library, the company you pay to bring the internet to your house treats each search the same.

Until very recently, ISPs have treated data like phone companies do. There are no priority phone lines. Everyone, from individuals to telemarketing companies, uses the same wires. So no matter whom you are calling, the data is treated equally, so if the phone line is not busy, you are put through. It has always been that way with the internet, too. Whether you are watching a TV show, checking your Comcast email, or reading the newest issue of Duende, your ISP treats the data equally. This is how the internet works. It is how Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the internet, believes it should work[1]. There are no priority lines.

Now, though, Verizon and Comcast—which are quickly becoming our only options for bringing internet into our homes—want to charge their customers differently for different types of data, and charge businesses more to use the priority line. Giant companies that can afford the priority line will be in first line, gaining priority access to the screens of internet-users, while self-published journals, blogs, and websites will all be at risk waiting in the second line.

If our phone lines worked the way Verizon and Comcast want the internet to work, with a priority line for companies who can afford it, and a second line for everyone else, big companies would get priority. In a January 2011 column on Locus Online, Cory Doctorow makes a great analogy that I am going to adopt here: imagine calling your favorite indie bookstore to see if they have a book on hand, but instead of the line ringing at the bookstore, you hear a robotic female voice say, “Between the Covers has not paid for priority service. Please press 1 to be immediately connected to an Amazon sales reparative, or hold for 5 minutes while we connect you to Between the Covers.”

Amazon, in this theoretical example, has paid the phone company to be in the priority line whenever you try to call your local bookstore. But phone lines don’t actually work this way and never have. This is because they are treated and legislated as a public utility. The advocators for net neutrality argue that the internet should also be treated like a public utility, and that no one, not even wealthy companies, can pay to have priority for their data.

Cory Doctorow explains what is at stake here, and it is everything:

“Here’s something every creator, every free speech advocate, every copyright maximalist and every copyfighter should agree on: allowing the channels to audiences to be cornered by a handful of incumbents is bad news for all of us….This is the big fight for us – the fight over who gets to decide who will be heard and how.”

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-23205244