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Net Neutrality Debate Explained

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If you’ve been paying attention to the news (or Facebook) at all, then you’ve probably seen plenty of articles talking about net neutrality in the last couple of days. I’ve seen it praised by some, referred to as the “Obamacare of the Internet” by others and read notices from big telecom companies threatening legal action if certain measures are passed. It all sounds pretty scary and extremely polarized.

So, what exactly is net neutrality? Well, I admit that there are way more facets to the issue than I could cover in a simple blog post, but the issue is important enough that everyone should at least have an idea of what’s going on. So for those of you who haven’t been following the debate, or just want an abbreviated explanation, you’ve come to the right place!

Why is it in the News all the sudden?

The first thing that you might be wondering is why all of the sudden we’re hearing all this debate about net neutrality. Where did it come from?

As it turns out, net neutrality has actually been in the background for several years, ever since the 2002 ruling that gave internet companies more freedom. More recently, however, President Obama gave a speech in regards to net neutrality that went something like this:

“We cannot allow internet service providers to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas. That is why today, I am asking the FCC to answer the call of almost 4 million public comments, and implement the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality,” President Obama said in a statement on Monday.

As a note, the fact that the President has taken a side is interesting in of itself, because the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) is not regulated by the government, and the President doesn’t actually have any legal power over the FCC. On Wednesday, the FCC stated that a decision won’t be made until early 2015.

Regardless, since the President released his statement, the industry has exploded with responses from internet carriers stating that they were against it, consumers and smaller companies stating they would back it and the FCC saying they would think on it and find something that works for everyone. But, just as a reminder, this debate has been going on in the background for years–the President simply brought it to the forefront again with his statement on Monday.

What is Net Neutrality?

So, now that we know why you’re even reading this article today, the next obvious question is what exactly IS net neutrality? While the issue is pretty complex with many different aspects, the basic idea behind net neutrality is actually pretty simple. Net neutrality is the idea that all of the internet should be delivered at the same speeds by every company to everyone. Told you it was simple. Why would anyone be against that?

Well, as I said, it’s a little more complicated than it seems. The FCC, which as a reminder is the agency that oversees all internet and mobile communications in the country, has the ability to oversee and regulate pretty much all telecommunications businesses that operate with and in the United States. Because there are so many different facets to the telecom industry, there are several different classifications which allow the FCC more or less regulatory power over businesses. As of 2002, internet providers like AT&T and Comcast are classified in such a way that the FCC doesn’t have much regulatory abilities over them. These companies can charge what they want, to who they want and have the free reign to expand and grow their networks with little interference.

President Obama and advocates of net neutrality have been asking the FCC to re-classify internet service providers like AT&T or Comcast so they would have the ability to oversee and regulate the companies and the services more. Essentially, the internet would become more like a utility (similar to electricity or phone services) and the government would be pretty directly involved (If you’ve seen statements referring to 1930s laws and regulations, this is what they’re talking about), meaning that they would be able to oversee prices and ensure internet speeds are neutral for all internet sites, carriers and customers.

The argument against net neutrality is that heavy government regulation is going to stifle innovation and progress. If every company has to go through miles of red tape in order to improve their networks, change policies and generally do business, then there will be no motivation to innovate. Without innovation, there is no competition.

I have to admit that there is definitely a good argument here–many of the internet breakthroughs that allowed for high-speed streaming via the net weren’t likely to have happened if permission had to be granted from the FCC before the companies expanded to the new technologies. Basically, it puts a damper on experimentation in the internet world, and therefore on competition. And, since the American economy is based on competition to drive progress, it’s a pretty a scary concept.

As you can see, it’s definitely a pretty polarized and complicated issue, with plenty of sides to it.

Why should I care?

Well, aside from the fact that pretty much everyone uses the internet (especially you! I mean, this is an online blog, after all…) this debate is important for, in my opinion, two main reasons:

  1. The Internet of Things – With the way that innovation and technology is headed, the internet is going to be an extremely pervasive and important part of everyday life. Already, you can purchase cars, household appliances and more that are constantly connected to the internet. So how the internet is regulated is going to directly influence pretty much everything.
  2. Regulations are easy to set and hard to break – Once something is regulated, it is extremely hard to un-regulate it. This doesn’t necessarily mean that regulation is a bad thing; more that it is something that should definitely be debated, as the ramifications are going to be long-reaching.

Whether or not you actually intend to do anything about the debate other than post on Facebook, being knowledgeable about how things work is never a bad thing. And if you feel the need to do something, why not write a letter to the FCC and let them know?

Earlier this year, after John Oliver ranted on HBO about the net neutrality debate and encouraged viewers to protest on the FCC website. He got so much support that the FCC website actually crashed from all of the traffic. So public opinion really does count!

See? That wasn’t complicated at all!

Well, that was the abbreviated version. I admit that I’m not an expert on net neutrality, and I, myself, am still slightly on the fence as to whether the new proposed regulations would be a good thing. If you’re really wanting to get involved, or just knowledgeable, then I highly recommend checking out some of these sources for more information and a more in-depth view of the issue.

If you’re wanting to get an idea of where the debate is currently, just check out just about any major news source and I guarantee you’ll be able to find something.

So, where do you stand on the debate? Let me know in the comments!