FAQ: Net Neutrality and Why You Should Care

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I know, I know. You keep hearing this term and wonder what it really means. I’ve been following the story for five years now, and sometimes I still wonder myself. Is it something that could really end up affecting what I see or can’t see on the Web, or is it just a buzzword that geeks, policy wonks, and politicians like to throw around at parties? Well, it’s really both.

Here I've put together a list of basic questions about Net neutrality that, if taken as directed, can help you swim through the spin and hype around the topic. It'll also help you understand in jargon-free terms what's being debated now, and how the possible outcomes of the debate could change the Web forever.

Q: What is Net neutrality?

A: At the very simplest level, the term "Net neutrality" is accepted shorthand for the idea that Internet service providers shouldn't be allowed to block, degrade, or charge extra for legal content and applications that run on the Net--an idea that has pretty much been the standard operating procedure since the Internet's start, but one that has never been codified into enforceable law.

Q: Why should I care?

A: In its most egregious forms, Net neutrality violations could keep you from accessing content or services you have legally paid for--as in the very first known violation, when a regional service provider blocked users from the Vonage Voice over IP service, or the most recent one, when Comcast used questionable management practices to keep some broadband users from downloading content. While it's true that most Net neutrality violations are either unknown or still theoretical, consumer advocates who favor Net neutrality regulations say they are needed to ensure that service providers don't use their market strength to turn the Internet into a place where they can charge both customers and content and application providers premium fees to connect to each other.

Q: Why is Net neutrality in the news again?

A: The latest headlines came on August 9, when Google and Verizon announced that they had worked together to produce a "framework" to help legislators and regulators construct Net neutrality regulations that industry leaders might readily agree with. Details of the framework aside, the deal was big news mainly because Google and Verizon had previously been very vocal opponents on many sides of the Net neutrality battles. Google, which has long championed Internet openness on all levels, was accused of "selling out" its Net neutrality principles in order to placate its business partner Verizon, which is one of the biggest sellers of mobile phones that use Google's Android operating system. Though Google denied it was giving up its net neutrality ideals, a full Greek chorus of bloggers and columnists derided it for doing just that, and Internet consumer groups even staged a small "Don't Be Evil" protest at Google headquarters.

The Google/Verizon deal followed a busy spring and summer of Net neutrality activity in Washington, D.C., where the Federal Communications Commission has been struggling to assert its historical control of the issue. In April, the agency took a big legal hit when a district court ruled that the FCC didn't have the necessary jurisdiction to enforce Net neutrality regulations on cable providers like Comcast, a ruling that left many questioning whether the FCC had any Net neutrality enforcement powers at all. Currently, the FCC is moving forward on several fronts to try to regain its legal footing, floating ideas for new Net neutrality regulations as well as possibly reclassifying Internet services as telecommunication services so it could regulate broadband providers under its historical powers.

Telecom companies, who are among the nation's strongest lobbying forces, are doing their best to push their own agendas, and drafting members of Congress to decry the FCC's intended actions. The FCC has also drawn the ire of consumer groups for holding several off-the-record meetings with industry representatives in order to try to find some common ground on the matter.

Q: Have there ever been any known cases of Net neutrality infractions?

A: The issue first surfaced back in 2005, when regional telecom service provider Madison River was punished for blocking its DSL users from the Vonage VoIP service. Later that year, then-SBC CEO Ed Whitacre--whose company at the time was about to buy AT&T--made the issue famous by telling Business Week that Internet firms like Google should have to pay extra to reach users over AT&T's lines:

"Why should they be allowed to use my pipes? The Internet can't be free in that sense, because we and the cable companies have made an investment and for a Google or Yahoo or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes free is nuts," Whitacre said. The inflammatory nature of his comments fueled intense debate about the subject throughout 2006, but attempts by the Republican-controlled Congress to pass legislation that would prohibit Net neutrality regulations stalled.

In 2007, the Associated Press reported that Comcast was slowing BitTorrent without telling its customers, an act that the FCC censured in 2008, saying it was in violation of the Net neutrality "principles" that the FCC had outlined in 2005. The court decision this April, however, overturned the FCC's punishment of Comcast and has thrown the whole issue back into disarray.

Q: Should wireless broadband be exempt?

A: The real sticking point in the current state of the Net neutrality debate is the question of wireless networks, especially wireless broadband networks that carry data to smartphones. One of the most strenuous objections to the Google-Verizon framework is its declaration that wireless networks should be excluded from any Net neutrality regulations. From the provider perspective, the reasoning behind this exemption is that wireless networks have much lower capacity and much higher management demands than wireline networks do, so providers don't want regulations that make administration tougher or operations more expensive. Consumer groups, however, say that wireless networks need regulations to ensure that Internet-style innovation can occur as wireless connections gradually replace wired ones, and to keep providers from enacting "toll gates" that would extract high costs from bandwidth-heavy uses of wireless networks, like streaming video.

Q: Who has the juice in this fight?

A: The biggest influence by far in the Net neutrality battle comes from the big telecom service providers, namely Verizon and AT&T, and the big cable players, like Comcast. With hundreds of lawyers well-versed on regulatory topics and the ability to contribute mightily to legislators on both sides of the aisle, the telco lobbying forces are among the elite in Washington circles, the equal of drug and oil companies. AT&T and Verizon have both spent nearly $9 million each on lobbying so far this year, with Comcast right behind at nearly $7 million in lobbying costs, while the main cable-industry association spent another $8 million.

The big phone and cable providers are experts at controlling the message. They contribute to lawmakers' campaigns, actively educate and advise legislators on complex telecom issues, and even help draft legislation. Witness the recent public "letter" signed by 73 Democrats that tells the FCC it should abandon its "reclassification" plans since such actions might "jeopardize jobs and deter investment”--a claim that Big Telco has long used to ward off moves to regulate its industry.

On the side of Net neutrality, Google used to lead the way, at least in terms of lobbying and spending, a role that may be diminished if Google spends more time trying to work with its previous opponents. But some very vocal customer advocacy groups are also involved in the Net neutrality fight, led by Public Knowledge and Free Press--groups that have much smaller budgets than the big providers but that have become very adept at publicizing their side of the story via Internet channels and aggressive e-mail messages to reporters, analysts, and Washington insiders.

Q: So again, why should I care? Do I need to get involved?

A: In the short term, Net neutrality violations are likely to remain nonexistent since service providers know that any transgressions would give opponents plenty of firepower during a key decision-making time. And despite their claims that Net neutrality regulations would discourage investment, service providers are likely to keep spending big to build up their networks no matter what happens on the regulatory front, given the competitive market for providing Internet access, especially on mobile networks.

But as AT&T's recent decision to do away with "unlimited" wireless data plans illustrates, the big providers are already moving toward charging more for broadband services, especially mobile ones, in part to defend against the perceived added costs of possible Net neutrality regulation.

Should the government (the FCC) be given the power to mandate Net neutrality principles by force of law, or should the big ISPs have the right to police themselves? For many, the latter approach has become suspect in these days of bank collapses and offshore drilling catastrophes.

On the other hand, if you believe that a lack of rules might allow service providers to indiscriminately boost prices and limit competition on networks of the future, you might want to lend your support to the groups and legislators backing a Net neutrality law, since they claim their rules will keep the Internet more open for innovation.

With no Net neutrality regulations, service providers say they will have more incentive to invest in the networks and applications of the future, since they'll be able to control transmissions more to their liking in order to maximize profits. But that also means a probability of wireless services that are priced much like cable TV, where customers pay more for "premium" channels.

Paul Kapustka is editor and founder of Sidecut Reports, an independent research firm that specializes in wireless technologies.

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