Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Net Neutrality (but Were Too Busy Waiting for Netflix to Finish Buffering to Ask)
If you’ve been reading the tech news over the past six months, you’ve surely heard the term “net neutrality,” surrounded by enough other techno-jargon to make your head spin. Forget all that. Here’s a simplified guide to what you need to know about net neutrality and why it’s important.
What does “net neutrality” mean, anyway?
Since the earliest days of the Internet, back when it was just a handful of universities exchanging data at a leisurely 300 bits per second, nearly all network traffic has been treated equally, no matter what it was, who sent it, or where it was going. (Exceptions have included spam and malware.) That’s net neutrality. And as the Internet has grown, incorporating email, the World Wide Web, and voice and video services, that is how it has remained. All the content on the Internet was treated equally.
In December 2010, the Federal Communications Commission issued its Open Internet Order, which codified net neutrality. It said Internet service providers were not allowed to block any lawful traffic or “unreasonably discriminate” against data flowing across their networks. (You can read all 194 fascinating pages here.) ISPs couldn’t manage voice or video data any differently from email or webpages. Comcast wasn’t allowed to throttle (slow down) traffic from Hulu that competed with its XFINITY TV video service, AT&T had to treat Skype calls the same way it did every other voice-over-IP service, and so on. With the order, the FCC took the long-established practice of net neutrality and made it government policy.
But a month later, Verizon Communications challenged the order, claiming that the FCC did not have the right to impose these rules. Last January, the U.S. Court of Appeals agreed, saying the feds lacked the authority under the Telecommunications Act of 1996. (Our own Rob Pegoraro elegantly unpacks the implications of that decision here.) The FCC announced that it would not appeal the decision and instead proposed a new set of rules in April 2014, which would retain most of the original order’s principles but allow ISPs to charge higher fees for better service.
Why do the big ISPs hate net neutrality so much?
In a word, money. By 2016, online video will account for nearly 90 percent of all Internet traffic, according to projections made by networking giant Cisco. For the past few years, video services like Netflix and Hulu have been able to attract millions of paying subscribers to their services without kicking back anything extra to the ISPs that are carrying their traffic, besides the usual standard connection fees.
That changed last February, when Netflix agreed to pay Comcast (and later Verizon) to guarantee faster delivery of entertainment programming to its customers. The agreement had a big impact on consumers: Complaints about how Netflix shows seem to buffer endlessly vanished virtually overnight.
Essentially, the larger ISPs want to charge content providers more for “fast lanes” that guarantee “quality of service” for traffic that needs it most, like video and voice. With the anti-discrimination rules of net neutrality dead in the water, there’s nothing to stop them from varying their rates based on the kind of data they see coming down the pipe.