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HTG Explains: What is Net Neutrality?

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Whether net neutrality should be mandated by law is one of the biggest policy debates around the Internet, but net neutrality isn’t just a matter of law. Net neutrality is a principle that’s given us the Internet we have today.

In short, “net neutrality” refers to the principle that all packets on the Internet should be treated equally, without discrimination. Internet service providers should transmit data without prioritizing the data from certain companies.

The Way the Internet Works

Okay, we’re not actually going to explain how the entire Internet works here — that would be ridiculous. However, there’s one important principle at work. Whether you’re accessing How-To Geek, Google, or a tiny website running on shared hosting somewhere, your Internet service provider treats these connections equally and forwards the data along without prioritizing any one party.

Your Internet service provider could prioritize data from Google, charging them for the privilege. They could throttle Netflix while providing you with unlimited bandwidth to stream videos from their own video-streaming service. They could restrict the bandwidth available to VoIP applications and encourage you to keep paying for a phone line. They could throttle connections to websites run by startups and other individuals that haven’t signed a contract with the Internet service provider to pay for priority access. These actions would all be violations of net neutrality.

However, by and large, Internet service providers don’t violate net neutrality in this way. They just forward packets along — that’s the way the Internet has worked and it has given us the Internet we have today.

Why Net Neutrality is Important

At its heart, “net neutrality” is an idea that wants the Internet service provides to get out of the way and focus only on sending data back and forth. Net neutrality proponents don’t want the Internet service providers to inspect the data — either looking at where it came from or using deep packet inspection to determine whether it’s peer-to-peer, voice-over-IP, or video-streaming data — and then decide what to do with it.

The current structure of the Internet doesn’t prioritize anyone when it comes to sending data. Whether you’re accessing Google or tiny servers run by a new startup, your Internet service provider will forward that data along. Packets are sent in a first-come, first-serve manner, which means that even Internet heavyweights like Google have to wait in line with tiny startups and don’t get to cut ahead.

This is good for innovation. It allows people to create new services without having their service degraded by Internet service providers prioritizing existing services, or without having to cut deals with Internet service providers and pay them for the privilege of priority traffic. It prevents Internet service providers, who often also offer cable TV and phone services, from harming competing services like Netflix and Skype.

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A World Without Net Neutrality

Advocates of laws that mandate net neutrality for Internet service providers imagine a world where the Internet we know and love has become twisted to serve the aims of Internet service providers, many of whom have monopolies in their geographic areas:

  • Video Streaming: Services like Netflix and Hulu would be restricted thanks to bandwidth caps or throttling that ruins video quality. However, you would have an unlimited amount of bandwidth to stream videos from your Internet provider, who also runs a cable TV service and has an interest in forcing you to use their service.
  • Voice-Over-IP: VoIP traffic would be degraded, encouraging you to hold onto your landline phone or pay for cell phone minutes.
  • Prioritization of Services: Websites like Google would have to pay service providers for priority traffic, lest they be throttled. You would be limited from accessing services that don’t make an agreement with your Internet service provider, possibly by bandwidth caps or throttled, slowed connections.

Of course, net neutrality isn’t absolutely sacrosanct today. Some ISPs have used deep-packet inspection to identify and slow peer-to-peer traffic on their networks — this is a violation of net neutrality, by definition. ESPN is currently in talks to partner with cellular companies so its video traffic can be prioritized, allowing subscribers to watch ESPN videos without taking up any of their data.

The Law Debate

Many of the arguments around net neutrality laws don’t come down to whether net neutrality is good in and of itself, but whether government regulation is necessary to preserve it or harmful to future innovation.

Major Internet companies like Google and Microsoft, along with consumer advocate groups, tend to support net neutrality, arguing that Internet service providers shouldn’t be able to discriminate against certain types of connections and content. Major telecommunications companies, along with the usual anti-government-regulation interest groups, tend to oppose net neutrality, arguing that governments shouldn’t tell Internet service providers how to run their networks and that this could hamper innovation.

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Whether you support network neutrality laws or think the government shouldn’t be handing down rules, it’s clear to see that “net neutrality” has been the way the Internet has worked so far. Unfortunately, it’s also the case that many Internet service providers have monopolies in their geographic areas and also own cable TV and phone lines, giving them an incentive to hamper Internet-based video-streaming and VoIP services from Netflix to Skype — something that amounts to a conflict of interest. The fear is that Internet service providers could prevent competition in other areas, while consumers couldn’t switch to a competing ISP because their provider has a monopoly in their area.

Image Credit: Thomas Belknap on FlickrKIUI on Flickr, Thomas Belknap on Flickr

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 06/8/13

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