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Pick a side on net neutrality
Like streaming video? Then you like net neutrality

07/10/14
By John Andrews jandrews@hippopress.com



 Looking through my copious publications, I was astonished to find that I hadn’t once written on the topic of net neutrality. Not in this column, not on my hugely popular blog read by several people not related to me, and not for my innovative tech company employer in Nashua’s miniature Silicon Valley.

So here we go.
Net neutrality, basically, is the concept and practice of all traffic on the Internet being treated with equal priority. Your ISP isn’t supposed to care if you’re streaming a movie, downloading operating system updates, uploading a Marvel/Game of Thrones/Call the Midwife mashup music video, or saying “Yo” to your online buddies. Each packet of information gets routed regardless of its content, destination or origin.
This makes some Internet service providers unhappy because they can’t charge more for services people actually want to, you know, use, as opposed to surfing old Geocities pages. The idea of tiered access has gone around, similar to how cable channels are doled out: $30 a month gets you basic browsing; $40 includes Google and Bing; $50 has news and politics sites; $60 puts social networks into reach; and the highest tier, as always, is reserved for sports.
The issue has gained prominence recently because a court struck down Federal Communications Commission rules for net neutrality, and proposed replacement rules have been criticized as weak, stupid, counterproductive, lame, fascist and much, much worse (because, hey, the debate about the Internet has been held largely on the Internet).
Some of the problem stems from how ISPs have changed since consumers first started piling onto the Internet. In the early 1990s, all but the most technical users subscribed to America Online or Prodigy, which acted as content portals as well as access providers. Two decades later, ISPs still include added services like email addresses, Web hosting, and some kind of content portal, but realistically, what people are paying for is the raw Internet connection.
That makes your ISP a “common carrier,” an entity that acts as a neutral intermediary, offers services to the general public and doesn’t discriminate. The U.S. Postal Service, for example, delivers a First Class letter the same way no matter who the sender or recipient is. This actually holds advantages for the carriers; they’re not responsible for any unsavory content, for example, because they’re just passing it through without looking at it.
Even though they’re common carriers in practice, however, broadband ISPs aren’t defined as common carriers in law or regulation. In fact, they’re not even telecommunications companies, but “information services.” Re-classifying them as such is either a no-brainer or impossible depending upon whom you ask.
It’s tough to predict the consequences of an Internet without net neutrality. Broadband providers could indeed decide to favor some companies over others, throttling the access of competitors like Netflix and Hulu because they want subscribers to pay for their own video services. Then again, public demand could make a more neutral approach a competitive advantage (though the non-competitive nature of the broadband industry, where providers often sign exclusivity agreements with municipalities, makes this possibility kind of moot).
There have been petitions, and will probably be more, urging the FCC to call ISPs telecommunications common carriers. If you’re interested in signing some, you can start at savetheinternet.com.

The author saves the Internet daily as @CitizenjaQ on Twitter.





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