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Since you are probably reading this blog post on the internet, there’s a good chance you’ve heard the term “net neutrality,” especially in the last month or so, but you may not know exactly what it means. Simply put, it means that internet service providers (ISPs) are not permitted to slow down, block, or require users to pay extra to view certain websites.

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As we all know, Americans live on the internet these days. To a greater and greater extent, we rely on the internet for communication, business, financial transactions, information, and shopping. Without the internet, our desktop computers, laptops, tablets, and smartphones would operate pretty much like an electric typewriter or an cell phone from a decade ago.

“The Internet is the repository of all human knowledge — and goats singing Taylor Swift songs.”  (John Oliver, Last Week Tonight)

Because we have come to rely so heavily on the internet, rules were put in place in 2015 that prohibited ISPs from charging more for higher-quality service or for certain content. An example of the type of ISP practices that led to these regulations is the decision by both Comcast and Verizon to slow Netflix traffic in an attempt to force Netflix to pay extra to be in the “fast lane.” (As a side note, the current FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, was formerly associate general counsel for Verizon.)  Other ISPs blocked access to streaming and messaging services of competitors. The 2015 regulations were intended to level the playing field for users and content creators by prohibiting blockage or extra fees for particular websites or platforms.

Last month, however, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to repeal these rules.

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So far we haven’t seen any dramatic changes in the way we are able to access content on the web, but that could change. For example, your ISP could decide to charge extra for access to social media by requiring the purchase of a monthly package in addition to your basic internet service charge. It would be the same type of thing you probably already have with your current cable TV service. You pay a certain amount for basic service and must pay extra if you want a full range of cable channels. But even that doesn’t get you everything. Many cable companies require the purchase of a sports package if you want to get ESPN, NFL Channel, or the Golf Channel, for example. If you want premium channels such as HBO or Showtime, you usually have to purchase those individually.

So, what the end of net neutrality could mean is that you will have to pay a fee to your ISP to be able to access Netflix, for example. Not the end of the world, to be sure, but what about other consequences? If, for example, you operate a small online business, could ISPs choose to slow the loading of your website if you’re unwilling (or unable) to pay a fee? Clearly, this type of practice would favor large online retailers who can afford to pay more and make it even harder for smaller businesses to compete.

“The biggest concern is that the internet will become pay-to-play technology with two tiers: one that has speedy service and one that doesn’t. The high-speed lane would be occupied by big internet and media companies, and affluent households. For everyone else there would be the slow lane.

“The brand-name internet companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Netflix, analysts say, will comfortably be able to pay the higher rent. It will not affect their business, though it may crimp their profits. Avoiding higher prices is one reason the major internet companies have been champions of net neutrality.” (The New York Times)

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Mobile users could take the first hit, with providers offering low-priced packages that provide access to a limited number of sites and requiring customers to pay more if they want access to a broader range of sites.

Another concern is that higher fees will put low-income Americans at more of a disadvantage. In an economy where the internet is as ubiquitous as electricity, it’s nearly impossible to compete for good jobs without a working knowledge of the internet. Already, many Americans living in urban areas rely on the public library for access to the internet, and for Americans living in rural areas, there may be no access at all.

To be sure, there are those that argue that the end of net neutrality is a good thing, or at least not as bad as some may want us to believe. An article in Fortune last month asserts that the internet operated “just fine for most people” before the 2015 rules went into effect, pointing out that public pressure or legal action served to keep ISPs honest, and that such pressures will continue to rein in ISPs now that net neutrality is a thing of the past. The article also points out that repeal of the regulations will enable ISPs to charge more for those using high amounts of data — gamers, for example — and use that additional revenue to invest in infrastructure. In response, some who favor net neutrality point out that most ISPs are already routinely investing in infrastructure in order to stay competitive. Finally, those in favor of repeal suggest that most users will notice no difference in their experience and there is always the hope that loosening the grip of the government will spur innovation and new companies that will offer faster, cheaper internet.

So, that, in 1,000 words or so, is what net neutrality is all about, Charlie Brown. It could have wide-reaching consequences or it could be little more than a blip on the radar screen. Share your thoughts on this issue.

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