Net Neutrality Matters

Opinion / Jul. 13, 2017 9:57am EDT

If you spent any time on the Internet Wednesday, hopefully you would have made note of a several instances of online protest about a topic called “net neutrality.”

To make an analogy, if the Internet were the Interstate, net neutrality guarantees that the road is open to everyone and that no party has preferred access. Anyone with a car can drive on I-89 and anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can move about the Internet freely. The rules of the road apply to everyone equally.

The Internet as we know it grew up with this concept of neutrality, informally applied by the scores of folks who contributed to the nascent web. Seeing that sacrosanct neutrality threatened, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission imposed rules formalizing it in 2015.

Under new masters, however, the FCC is currently considering ways to repeal those rules. Without them, Internet service providers like AT&T, Verizon, FairPoint, and Comcast would be able to give priority to certain Internet traffic and slow other traffic to a crawl. They could, for example, make lots of money by selling preferential access to big companies like Facebook or YouTube at the expense of small companies and individuals who couldn’t afford to keep up. That could make it difficult for audiences to access peoples’ individual websites, or to find local news outside of major corporate platforms.

Let’s go back to the Interstate for a second.

Imagine a company, RoadCo, takes over I-89 as a for-profit enterprise. Taxpayer dollars have funded the road work, our representatives have handled negotiating with landowners and creating policy about the road’s use. RoadCo gets paid, through taxes, to maintain the infrastructure.

Then RoadCo figures out another way to profit. Regular people (like you and me) will still be allowed to drive on the Interstate, but only in the right lane and only at 20 miles per hour. The left lane will be open solely to companies that can afford to pay an express fee. Those express fee-payers can go as fast as they like; if the road gets too congested, we normal people will have to pull over and let the big guys pass us by.

If a mom-and-pop courier service couldn’t afford the fees that FedEx could pay, their service suffers and mom and pop are out of business.

Of course in the physical world, we have a refuge that the Internet doesn’t have. Our system of town and state roads predates the Interstate and could still take us where we want to go. On the Internet, there are no back ways; we could only go where our ISP wants us to and that destination will be where minimum consumer demand and maximum company profit intersect.

Comcast is the country’s largest ISP and they also happen to own a video streaming service, Xfinity Streampix. Without net neutrality rules, Comcast could prioritize Streampix over Netflix, YouTube, and Joe Schmo’s home videos.

As the Internet was created, everything is equally accessible. If you’re interested in conservative talk radio, DIY upholstery, news from your local selectboard, or cat videos, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding those things online. If you’re a gay man in a rural village and you need to connect with a community that understands you, it’s on the Internet. If you’re in an abusive relationship and you badly need to find resources to get yourself out of it, those resources are on the Internet. Should an ISP have any hand in deciding whether or not you’re allowed to access them?

I’d encourage you to visit the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s net neutrality website, https://dearfcc.org, and send your opinion to the powers that be. We can hope that those who represent us are actually listening.

T. Calabro

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