Bill Jannen: What is net neutrality and why is it important?

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Net neutrality is back in the news, but just like the last time (the FCC ruled in favor of net neutrality in 2015) the talking points we hear are riddled with jargon and hyperbole.

I see the current debate as a fight between Internet service providers (companies like AT&T, Comcast and Time Warner Cable) and content producers (platforms like Netflix where we may be subscribers, or Youtube where we may also be creators) over whose profits should fund our country's Internet infrastructure. As an Internet user, I view net neutrality as an essential component of a free and open Internet, but we should demand more. If Internet service providers will not provide the service that we want, we should invest in our own Internet infrastructure and remove profits from the equation.

As an Internet user, I pay an Internet service provider (ISP), so that I may connect my devices — phones, computers, tablets, game consoles — to the Internet. I then stream movies, surf the web, send emails, and play games, and my devices exchange data with other devices that are also connected to the Internet through agreements with their own ISPs. These other devices are often owned by content producers, like Netflix or Amazon, and I often pay those content producers separately for their content.

There are not dedicated wires to connect every device to every other device, so my data travels on the same wires as my neighbors' data as information flows between my devices and the greater Internet. In fact, the analogy of data flowing through the Internet is a good one — if data is water, then ISPs build pipes, and many ISPs connect their pipes to create a global waterway. The larger a pipe is, the more shared data can flow through it at once, but a single blocked pipe can slow the data flow along an entire pathway.

For any fixed-size pipe, there is a limit to the amount of data it can hold, and these limits are being challenged. More and more people own more devices, and devices utilize more and more Internet-enabled services. At the same time, the amount of data that each service generates continues to rise — think HD video streaming and large file transfers to "the cloud". More devices and more data means more contention for the same resources.

Investing in larger pipes is expensive, and ISPs would prefer not to pay. One option is to throttle Internet traffic, or intentionally limit the amount of data that an Internet service may send. This practice would reduce the data flow, but also degrade the performance that we, as users, observe on our devices (possibly discouraging us from using a service in the future). A second option would be to charge a content producer, like Netflix, for a guaranteed quality of service (you may hear this referred to as paid prioritization, or creating slow lanes). In this way, an ISP could push the cost of investment to the companies that it perceives to be causes of those investment needs. Critics argue that if a company like Comcast, that is both an ISP and a content producer, could charge rival content producers, Comcast would have an unfair advantage.

Net neutrality prohibits this behavior. The key tenet of net neutrality is that all data should be treated the same. An ISP could not target an Internet service by throttling data, could not charge a content producer for paid prioritization, and could not block access to a particular website, platform, or service. These guarantees are protections that I, as an Internet user, value. The FCC's recent decision to repeal net neutrality removes the agency's ability to effectively regulate ISPs and protect consumers.

People often ask me which side of the debate I support, but I challenge the assumption that there are only two sides. The debate is framed by coalitions of powerful companies, and by forcing us to choose a side, we guarantee at least one coalition wins. It seems that the Internet service providers have won over the regulators — most ISPs are in favor of repealing net neutrality, and the tech companies that provide content over the Internet have won over the citizenry — most Internet-based companies are in favor of preserving net neutrality.

Net neutrality is a necessary component of a free and open Internet, but I also believe that high-speed Internet service should be as accessible to everyone as electricity and running water. High-speed Internet access should be managed like a public utility, and we should commit as a society to serving all communities. Efforts to create municipal broadband services are encouraging, and in cities like Chattanooga, Tenn., where the city-run Electrical Power Board operates the country's largest municipally-owned fiber-optic network, thriving tech communities have grown. Through proactive legislation and community organizing, we can build a future of equitable Internet access, but we must shift the debate and start advocating our best interests.

Bill Jannen is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Williams College where he thinks about data and how best to organize it. He is also an artist and game player.


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