At its heart, “net neutrality” involves a simple question: Should your Internet provider have any control over how you use your Internet connection? You’re accustomed to being able to reach any Internet site freely and you assume you can run any kind of program that uses an online connection. AT&T and Comcast and the rest don’t necessarily agree.
“Most people assume that the Internet is a democratic free-for-all by nature – that it could be no other way. But the openness of the Internet as we know it is a byproduct of the fact that the network was started on phone lines. The phone system is subject to ‘common carriage’ laws, which require phone companies to treat all calls and customers equally. They can’t offer tiered service in which higher-paying customers get their calls through faster or clearer, or calls originating on a competitor’s network are blocked or slowed.
“. . . But in the last decade, the network providers have argued that since the Internet is no longer primarily run on phone lines, the laws of data equality no longer apply. They reason that they own the fiber optic and coaxial lines, so they should be able to do whatever they want with the information crossing them.
“Under current law, they’re right. They can block certain files or Web sites for their subscribers, or slow or obstruct certain applications. And they do, albeit pretty rarely. . . .
“When the network operators pull these stunts, there is generally widespread outrage. But outright censorship and obstruction of access are only one part of the issue, and they represent the lesser threat, in the long run. What we should worry about more is not what’s kept from us today, but what will be built (or not built) in the years to come.
“We hate when things are taken from us (so we rage at censorship), but we also love to get new things. And the providers are chomping at the bit to offer them to us: new high-bandwidth treats like superfast high-definition video and quick movie downloads. They can make it sound great: newer, bigger, faster, better! But the new fast lanes they propose will be theirs to control and exploit and sell access to, without the level playing field that common carriage built into today’s network.
“They won’t be blocking anything per se – we’ll never know what we’re not getting – they’ll just be leapfrogging today’s technology with a new, higher-bandwidth network where they get to be the gatekeepers and toll collectors. The superlative new video on offer will be available from (surprise, surprise) them, or companies who’ve paid them for the privilege of access to their customers. If this model sounds familiar, that’s because it is. It’s how cable TV operates.”