On Net Neutrality

By Jason Poggioli

With the explosion of the Internet in our lives, the topic of “net neutrality” is the latest Internet grass roots issue being discussed. Next to the creation of the Internet itself, net neutrality may be the most important question in the furtherance of networking the world together.

First, a little science.

All information flying around the wires of the Internet are carried as 1’s or 0’s (known as bits) by Internet Service Provider (ISP) companies. All those 1’s and 0’s are treated equally as they zip through the digital equipment tasked with handling your request alongside the requests of millions of others. The bits collectively are known as “traffic” because they are treated just like cars on busy city streets. Your request for the Zest of Orange web site, for example, may pass through numerous relay points on the way back to your computer and all that traffic is treated equally.

Right now, this concept of “equally treated traffic” is based on nothing much more than a gentlemen’s agreement among all the companies providing access to the Internet. When you request the latest political news article, and your teenage neighbor asks for the latest viral video, the complex technology at your ISP is set to deliver both with equal priority. The bits are treated equally – neutral in the eyes of the switching equipment – so no bit has a higher priority than any other bit as the traffic is governed on the way to your respective machines.

The result is that our site, Zest of Orange, has the same delivery priority as the results you get from a giant corporation like Google when you conduct a web search. Pretty amazing, right? A small mail order business in Uganda gets the same priority as billion dollar corporations like Google and Amazon. Regardless of money, power, or political connections the small mail order operator knows you’ll get access to his site with the same priority as Amazon. That great equalizer only exists because no Internet providers have begun to treat traffic differently.

But as more devices demand more bandwidth it’s becoming more attractive for service providers to change how traffic is handled. It would not be difficult for companies to create tiers of priorities based on price. Google and Amazon could afford higher costs, and traffic prioritization, while the small mail order business might have to settle for third-class delivery. Net neutrality is the idea that prioritizing Internet traffic is unfair and all bits should be treated equally.

Internet neutrality activists believe it’s imperative that the government step in with regulation now to guarantee that all traffic will always be treated equally. The potential profit in creating tiers means it’s only a matter of time before the Internet becomes a fractured network with speedy, higher price priority delivery going to those who can pay for it – leaving other Internet traffic waiting in line. You may ask, “So what if my teenage neighbor has to wait a second or two longer to start watching a skateboarding video while I get my search results from Google back?” But what if the service provider started slowing down traffic not for monetary reasons, but because it was a web site from a competitor? Worse still, what if political views became a factor and a service provider decided Fox News should be delivered ahead of CNN?

Others believe that the less regulation the better and if service providers want to start prioritizing traffic let the free market sort it out. Presumably, this argument goes, if one service provider begins prioritizing one type of traffic over another and it results in angry customers, then those customers can get service from another provider. Of course, this argument depends on there being enough competition to let users vote with their wallet. If you wanted to start getting Internet service from another company tomorrow, how many choices do you have?

Regulation proposes that a clear net neutrality law is needed to prevent private companies from deciding on their own which traffic to your computer takes priority. It’s not without its own risks since letting government officials put ink to paper on such a complicated topic could produce less than ideal results. Special interests may slip in anti-pornography or anti-piracy amendments allowing for FCC-style censorship of what is now a remarkably uncensored form of broadcasting and communicating.

This issue is undecided, but is being hotly debated. It’s a shame that a simple federal law can’t be passed just stating that all information traveling through the Internet must be treated equally regardless of content or origin. Seems simple, doesn’t it? You can read more about net neutrality here.

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