Net neutrality has yet to pierce the public consciousness (Jon Stewart notwithstanding), but that moment may soon be upon us.
The phrase "net neutrality" refers to the current state of the Web wherein every site has parity on the Internet. Anyone can start a Web site (say, Joe's Guide to Sesquipedalianistic People) and be assured that you and I can connect to it as easily as we connect to, say, The New York Times online. It is the way the Internet was designed, and it is what makes it a unique communications tool and an increasingly essential part of the global business and information infrastructure.
Now, several companies want to hijack the Web, change its structure, and use it to wring money out of every single site on the World Wide Web. The proposal is to strike down net neutrality so that companies like AT&T, Verizon, and Qwest could make it easier to access some web sites and more difficult to access others. So, in the future if you wanted people to be able to download video clips from your site, for example, you'd have to pay additional fees to one of the companies that own the phyisical telecommunications lines, otherwise those companies would make it extremely difficult for people to access your Web site.
The result: Good-bye comparison shopping online, good-bye entrepreneurs and innovation, good-bye voice over IP digital phone services like Skype, good-bye videos online, good-bye every Web 2.0 idea you've every heard of. The only sites that would survive would be the likes of Amazon and Google, which presumably could afford to pay the telecos for priority access. Oh, and you can kiss the idea of online advertising good-bye as well, since the only way to get sufficient traffic to support an ad-based model would be to give the telecos a cut. However, the margins for most sites are too small to make that feasible.
Currently, there is no explicit legislation to prevent telecos from charging every Web site additional fees for access. Hence, the so-called net neutrality movement, which wants legislators to enact laws to prevent the telecos from fragmenting the Web and stifling innovation, restricting access to information, etc. (Incidentally, there is already technology out there to prioritize informational traffic on the Net–IPv6–but that is designed to address other Internet issues, such as how to accommodate, say, streaming video and the explosion of IP numbers.)
What's remarkable about the net neutrality issue is that some organizations, ignorant about how the Internet is structured, have come out against net neutrality. The latest to voice such a position is the technologically handicapped U.S. Department of Justice. On September 6, it filed a so-called ex parte paper with the FCC commenting on net neutrality. Essentially, that paper argued against preserving net neutrality for two reasons: 1) net neutrality laws would stifle innovation, and 2) allowing companies to create a multi-tiered service has worked in other businesses, like the U.S. Postal Service.
As to the first point, it is patently false. Net neutrality is the existing state of affairs and there's been plenty of innovation (no matter how much fun I poke at trendy marketing terms like Web 2.0). Maybe no one at the DOJ has used the Internet yet.
On the second point, it a false analogy. Aside from the questionable tactic of citing the U.S. Postal Service–which is barely hanging on by its fingernails and has failed to innovate since the days of the pony express–the Internet is really more analogous to the phone system. So following the DOJ's logic, eliminating net neutrality would be like allowing phone companies to not only charge for basic service, but also charge each and every one of us an extra fee to actually guarantee that our phones would ring every time someone called (rather than just ringing, well, some times).
So why should you care about net neutrality? Because if net neutrality were to end any business that uses the Web would be adversely affected and every person who uses the Web even just for e-mail could see the utility of the Internet severely curtailed.
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