As its name indicates, net neutrality is about creating a neutral internet. The basic principle driving net neutrality is that the internet should be a free and open platform, almost like any other utility we use in our home (like electricity). Users should be able to use their bandwidth however they want (as long as it’s legal), and internet service providers should not be able to provide priority service to any corner of the internet. Every web site should all be treated the same when it comes to giving users the bandwidth to reach the internet-connected services they prefer. Your electric company has no say over how you use your electricity—they only get to charge you for providing the electricity. Net neutrality aims to do something similar with your internet pipes.
Those against net neutrality—commonly including internet service providers (ISPs), like Comcast or AT&T—believe that, as providers of internet access, they should be able to distribute bandwidth differently depending on the service. They’d prefer, for example, to create tiers of internet service that’s more about paying for priority access than for bandwidth speeds. As such, in theory, they could charge high-bandwidth services—like Netflix, for example—extra money, since their service costs more for Comcast to provide to its customers—or they could charge users, like you and me, extra to access Netflix. They can also provide certain services to you at different speeds. For example, perhaps your ISP might give preferential treatment to Hulu, so it streams Hulu videos quickly and for free, while Netflix is stuck running slowly.
Arguments For Net Neutrality
Proponents of net neutrality don’t want to give the ISPs too much power because it could easily be abused. Imagine that Verizon or AT&T don’t like the idea of Google Voice, because it allows you to send text messages for free using your data connection. Your cellphone carrier could block access to Google Voice from your smartphone so you’re forced to pay for a texting plan from them. Or, they see that a lot of people are using Facebook on their smartphone, so even if they have the bandwidth to carry that traffic, they decide to charge you extra to access Facebook, just because they know it’s in high demand and that they can make a profit.
Similarly, Comcast recently got in a tiff with Netflix over its streaming video offerings, essentially telling Netflix’s partners that they’d need to pay if they wanted their content delivered on their network. Comcast argued that streaming Netflix is a huge traffic burden, and if they’re going to provide that service they’ll need to update their infrastructure. Netflix’s argument was that Comcast provides the internet, and it’s Comcasts users that have requested that extra bandwidth for the services they want.
Another way to look at it: Comcast also has their own On Demand service which directly competes with Netflix—and if Comcast is allowed to divide up their service as they please, the option to give preferential treatment to their own service isn’t exactly fair just because they’re the internet provider. And, with Comcast and NBC looking to merge, the waters can get even murkier. The resulting superpower could give preference to all of NBC’s content too, thus leaving other content providers out in the cold.
Arguments Against Net Neutrality
Anti-net neutrality activists argue that internet service providers have a right to distribute their network differently among services, and that in fact, it’s the ISPs that are innovating. They argue that giving preferential treatment to different services isn’t a bad thing; in fact, sometimes it’s necessary. In the recent Comcast/Netflix debate, they point out that if Netflix is sucking up all their bandwidth, they should be the ones to pay for the necessary updates that Comcast’s systems will require because of it.
Many free market proponents are also against the idea of net neutrality, noting that Comcast and AT&T are companies like any other that should be able to compete freely, without government regulation. They themselves aren’t “the internet”—they’re merely a gateway the internet, and if they’re each allowed to manage their networks differently, you’re more likely to have competition between service providers which ultimately, they claim, is better for the users. If you don’t like the fact that Netflix is slower on Comcast than it is on AT&T, you can switch to AT&T.
The problem, however, is still that ISPs could always favor their own services over others, leaving services with no connection to the ISP out in the cold. Furthermore, most people don’t have much choice in who their ISP is, since in any given location there may be only one or two ISPs providing internet.