There has been a lot of talk in the news about net neutrality but many web users are still unsure what it is and what the proposed changes mean. This article takes a look at the subject and what it means to you.
The term net neutrality has been in the news a lot lately. The Federal Communications Commission recently made the headlines when it released a draft of new rules that would impact Internet service providers, online companies and the consumers who do business with them. The proposed rules have not yet been approved, but if they go through they would allow Internet service providers to charge companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook and others extra in exchange for faster connections to their customers.
Many technology enthusiasts and Internet insiders are worried about the newly proposed rules, since they directly impact the concept of net neutrality. Many ordinary consumers are in the dark about this concept, but the idea of net neutrality touches them too, even if they do not know it.
What is Net Neutrality?
The concept behind net neutrality is a simple one, although the implications are often difficult to understand. Net neutrality simply means that all Internet service providers treat every website the same.
Net neutrality means that the ISP gives the same access to every packet of information, whether that packet comes from Amazon or Facebook or your own web server. Since Internet service providers are responsible for the last segment of Internet access, how they treat information is very important.
A Big Change
The concept of net neutrality has been in place since the Internet first became a consumer force, and it remains in force today. The newly proposed FCC rules would change that by giving preferential treatment to companies who are willing and able to pay more for faster access. That means the level playing field that has always existed would change dramatically, with larger and richer companies able to get superior speed and better access than their smaller and poorer counterparts.
Internet service providers are not trying to harm consumers or small companies by asking for permission to set up a kind of fast lane on the information superhighway. There are many nuances involved, and ISPs point out that large streaming services from companies like Netflix and Amazon can use up a huge amount of available bandwidth.
Those streaming services can use up to one third of the total bandwidth, and that can slow traffic down for everyone. By setting up an additional fast lane, ISPs argue that they can provide better service for everyone, including Netflix customers who are paying for streaming services.
The Evening Slowdown
There is some evidence that the popularity of streaming services by Amazon, Netflix and others is indeed slowing down the Internet and bogging things down for everyone. Internet service providers point to the slowdown that often occurs during peak hours, as people get home from work and sit down to watch video on demand with their families.
Proponents of the new FCC regulations hope that the changes will alleviate this slowdown and allow everyone to enjoy a faster and more enjoyable online experience. By allowing ISPs to charge more to companies that use more data, those service providers can free up bandwidth for everyone else.
Under the new rules, Netflix, Amazon and other high-traffic online companies will be able to pay for their own dedicated space, allowing their customers to get the best possible experience. Instead of sharing bandwidth with everyone else, customers who pay for streaming services will get their own space and be able to get what they are paying for.
The Other Side of the Debate
Not everyone is on board with the proposed FCC changes. Consumer advocates, website owners and technology enthusiasts point out that the end of net neutrality could have a number of negative impacts.
Consumers advocates worry that allowing Internet service providers to charge an extra fee will cause the affected companies to raise the rates consumers pay. Right now, they point out, Amazon and Netflix can access the Internet for free. If they win the right to pay more for their own online space, they are likely to pass the extra costs on to their customers. Amazon Prime members and Netflix customers might indeed get faster speeds and a better experience, but they are likely to pay more for the privilege.
Internet purists are also decrying the possible end of net neutrality. Some worry that it will change the face of the Internet forever and harm users in the process. Others point out that allowing ISPs to charge for better access will make it that much harder for the next Netflix or Facebook to emerge. The new rules, they worry, will give existing companies a nearly insurmountable edge in the marketplace, making it nearly impossible for new firms to gain a foothold and develop a following.
The FCC Response
The FCC is taking the concerns of their critics seriously, and the agency has promised to build in certain protections if the rules are approved. FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has pointed out that the proposed regulations require that Internet service providers fully disclose all relevant information to their subscribers. The rules also prohibit ISPs from blocking legal content and prohibit them from taking actions that could harm the Internet. ISPs would be required to give all consumers and all websites a fundamental level of service, guaranteeing that consumers get the online access they are paying for even if they do not subscribe to video streaming services or other high-volume websites.
The Internet has undergone many changes during its relatively short existence, and in the end the proposed FCC changes may just be another step in the evolution. What began as a way to connect defense computers evolved into a playground for geeks and technology enthusiasts, and then to a full-fledged commercial force. One thing is certain – the Internet is still changing, and it will continue to grow and evolve in the future whether net neutrality laws are retained or ultimately abandoned.