Over the past few weeks net neutrality has become a topic of great debate. I was recently asked to explain the issue for a friend who has only heard the sound bites on the news about the government trying to “take over the internet.” For those of you still unclear on exactly what net neutrality is, I will use an analogy of the road system because it is easier to follow.
Imagine if the road system throughout the United States had been built by private companies instead of the government from the beginning. Every road is privately owned and every road is a toll road. The owners of the roadways use the toll paid by travelers to pay for upgrades, maintenance and profit. As the years go by large delivery companies emerge who deliver goods by truck to their end users. These companies use the roadways more than others because of the number of packages they deliver, but their customers are paying for the tolls for their trucks to drive the deliveries across the country. These delivery companies grow so large that at each of their delivery centers they use 8 lane highways to get their trucks in and out of the property so they can deliver the goods to their customers. One day the road owners go to the shipping companies and explain a new rule. The road owners are now categorizing travelers into two tiers, fast and slow. Slow travelers can use the two and four lane roads while fast travelers can use any size roads. Now the shipping company is faced with a decision, if they do not pay to be a “fast” company the eight lane highways at the distribution centers will be changed to four lane roads or less.
In this analogy the shipping companies are every online service and website (from Google to the smallest blogs), and the road owners are the Internet Service Providers (such as Verizon and Time Warner). The major fight that brought this issue to the forefront is between Netflix and Verizon. The amount of data Netflix customers are streaming over Verizon’s network is staggering, which is why Verizon began to throttle (slow down) the connection to Netflix for Verizon customers. Throttling is the online equivalent of closing lanes on the eight lane highway at the distribution centers despite the fact end users are paying the tolls.
As I have hopefully explained Net Neutrality is not the government trying to take over the internet, it is the largest companies in the United States about to fight over who has to pay for what services and whether the service providers have the right to categorize, or tier, companies by speed based upon who pays them.
While the implications may seem meaningless they will be greater in the next twenty years than ever before. Net Neutrality is the reason every website is treated equally, and everyone with a computer and an internet connection has the same access as everyone else. Moving away from net neutrality to a tiered system controlled by internet service providers has consequences for individuals, businesses and society. Individuals should consider not only their access to the internet services they use currently, but the potential consequences for wearable devices that could provide vital services such as healthcare. Businesses who use their website to advertise or index in search results will be forced to pay or become obsolete when their site can no longer be found because it is slow. Most importantly for society the hindrance on progress and innovation could be vast because new technologies cannot afford to bring their service to the marketplace. Going back to the road analogy, imagine how different life would be if one day the road owners could change the pricing and begin to throttle those businesses that cannot afford the new fees.