This story is about net neutrality. Have we lost you yet?
Few words strike fear into the hearts of Internet advocates and boredom into the the minds of the general public like the phrase "net neutrality." It ranks up there with "campaign finance reform": huge importance, incredibly dull nomenclature.
But here's why you should care: The biggest Internet companies in the world are squaring off against the biggest ISPs in the country on this issue, which will dictate the future of the Internet.
It's Google vs. AT&T; Netflix vs. Comcast; Apple vs. Time Warner Cable. And there are billions of dollars at stake.It's Google vs. AT&T; Netflix vs. Comcast; Apple vs. Time Warner Cable. And there are billions of dollars at stake.These are the battle lines. They don't get much bigger than that.
The issue is coming to a head this week. On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to publicly release its proposed rules about the future of the "Open Internet."
Is there any other kind of Internet? There certainly could be. Here's a guide to what's at stake:
What is net neutrality?
Net neutrality is the concept that all Internet traffic should be treated equally.
Internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast or Verizon control how you access websites and content. Let's use an old-school metaphor: the information superhighway. Think of ISPs as the freeway on which your content travels from a website to your home.
An Internet governed by net neutrality would bar ISPs from creating special toll lanes for fat cats. Everyone would have the same speed limit.
Isn't that how things work now?
No, it is not. Right now, there is no regulation of how ISPs treat traffic from different websites. In 2010, the FCC enacted the Open Internet Order, which was built with three principles:
- Transparency: ISPs should be open about how they handle traffic.
- No blocking: As long as content is legal, an ISP is not allowed to block any site, service or device.
- No unreasonable discrimination: ISPs are not allowed to favor some traffic over others.
But in January, the D.C. Court of Appeals struck down the rules that the FCC had put in place to ensure net neutrality. The court said the FCC does not have the authority to require ISPs to treat traffic equally. The court told the FCC it had overstepped its bounds and needed to rewrite the rules.
On Thursday, the FCC will propose a new set of rules to regulate ISPs and attempt to re-establish net neutrality or something close to it. Net neutrality advocates worry that the new proposal will abandon the idea of net neutrality. The FCC says it is trying to create effective regulation.
Why does the FCC get to regulate the Internet?
No entity is in charge of regulating the Internet, but the FCC is as close as it gets in the United States. The agency oversees the ISPs, a role that makes it the watchdog of the Internet's infrastructure.
An Internet toll road doesn't sound so bad. What's wrong with paying for a faster connection?
Worst-case scenario: the Internet becomes more like cable TV.
Net neutrality advocates argue that the Internet is a success because it is an equal-opportunity medium for innovators and startups. But if big companies like Amazon and Netflix pay for a quick connection, there would be little incentive for the ISPs to provide good connections to everyone else. A startup might not have much of a chance if most of the Internet has slowed to a crawl while Netflix streams smoothly.
Such a shift wouldn't happen overnight, but critics contend that it would push the Internet toward a system akin to cable TV, where the service providers are the gatekeepers determining which content reaches consumers. Having enough money to pay ISPs would become essential to operating a successful website, meaning ESPN.com would do just fine but your sports blog wouldn't.
Going back to our freeway metaphor: In an Internet where there's a shiny, well-maintained series of lanes for companies like Netflix, your road could become a decrepit, crowded single lane that is barely operable.
And some content providers like Netflix, which accounts for a huge percentage of online traffic, don't want to pay extra tolls.
And the new FCC rules don't prevent this?
The public has yet to actually see the new rules, but as Mashable and other media outlets have reported, the proposal appears to allow ISPs to accept payment for better service.
That is not set in stone. FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has heard the roar of criticism that corresponded with the initial leak of the rules, even opening up the possibility of reclassifying broadband as a public utility. This is considered the "nuclear option," in that it would mean broadband is subject to stricter regulations and gives the FCC a clear mandate to ban pay-for-speed deals.
After the FCC airs the proposed rules on Thursday, a period follows in which the agency will solicit suggestions of how to make sure the regulation prevents companies from entering into deals that put other websites at a disadvantage.
The possibility of the FCC allowing any preferential treatment of traffic has caused alarm among net neutrality advocates like Senator Al Franken.
The critics' bottom-line concern is that the FCC is either unable or unwilling to explicitly ban a system in which content providers will be able to pay ISPs for better access.
If the new rules allow companies to buy special treatment, what do they prevent?
The proposed rules will keep (and possibly enhance) the transparency requirement as well as the no-blocking rule. The main change will be to the "unreasonable discrimination" section.
The key phrase that has been tossed around is "commercially reasonable." Any agreement between an ISP and a content provider, say Comcast and ESPN, for preferential treatment will be overseen by the FCC. The FCC says it will hold these deals to a "commercially reasonable" standard.
What does "commercially reasonable" mean?
This is the crux of the issue. Whatever "commercially reasonable" comes to mean will be important to Internet's future. Companies on both sides are expected to lobby hard to push this to the extremes.
The phrase itself means little. It will be up to representatives for the companies and the FCC to argue over future deals, each of which will set precedents that form the actual boundaries of "commercially reasonable."
So is the Internet over?
Some critics think so. Net neutrality hardliners believe that there is a dividing line when it comes to the Internet. On one side, everything is treated the same and the Internet continues to function in its chaotic beauty. On the other, corporatism rules the Internet, as The Verge explained in this dramatic imagining of digital media without net neutrality.
Will that happen?
We'll find out on Thursday.
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