by Chloe Lutts
This article on Net Neutrality was written by my daughter Chloe Lutts in August 2010. As a child of the digital age, she summarized the issue far better than I did when I once tackled the subject, and her conclusions remain relevant today. (April 2013)
Keeping the Internet equally accessible to all, especially small content producers, is key to ensuring tomorrow’s inventors and entrepreneurs have the same opportunity to succeed as their predecessors. To me, that means passing a law to protect net neutrality, the principle that all Internet traffic should be treated equally, regardless of content or origin.
We have net neutrality now—Internet traffic isn’t sped up or slowed down, or blocked, based on what it is or where it came from. If you own a small business, your website loads at the same speed as your larger competitors’. This has allowed small and non-profit websites to stay competitive with those backed by giant companies, even as the Internet matured. And it has allowed for the rise of user-driven sites like Wikipedia and CouchSurfing, not to mention millions of blogs. However, net neutrality is not protected by law, and any one of the companies that control Internet traffic could abandon it at any time.
A recent “policy proposal” put forward by Google and Verizon is the first step toward an Internet where all traffic is not created equal. Though their proposal would only change things for mobile Internet service at this time, it confirms that the Internet’s gatekeepers are thinking about these issues, and that the time to act is now. The gatekeepers I refer to are Internet Service Providers, or ISPs, of which Verizon is one of the largest. ISPs are the companies that own the Internet cables coming into your house.
When you type a web address into your computer, or click on a link on a website, that request gets sent through your ISP’s cables, to the provider of the content you have requested, and the content gets sent back through the cables to your computer. Right now, that content travels through those cables at the same speed regardless of where it is coming from. Content from Amazon.com will travel through the cables at the same speed as content from your sister’s blog. However, ISPs currently have the very real option of treating some content differently from others.
One possibility is that ISPs could strike deals with content providers, like Google, to give their content preferential treatment, by delivering it faster than other content. That might not seem so bad: Verizon giving YouTube videos priority over other content probably wouldn’t affect how quickly you could load other sites, even if Verizon is your ISP. It would make YouTube videos load a little faster. However, that almost certainly would not be the end of it.
What happens when Vimeo, a YouTube competitor, realizes that YouTube’s videos are loading faster than its own? If they’re smart, they’re going to strike a similar agreement with Verizon and other ISPs, to give their own content the same preferential treatment as YouTube’s. So now there’s two companies’ content being given preferential treatment, but other sites probably still load at just about the same speed.
Until 500 other companies come along, and say, hey, maybe we can get an edge on our competition by making our sites load faster. At this point, there are essentially two tiers of Internet traffic: There’s content from big companies, with lots of money, who can pay ISPs for preferential treatment. And then there’s content from individuals, like you, and non-corporate or non-profit entities, like Wikipedia and The Pirate Bay and universities, and just plain small websites that don’t have the money to pay ISPs for top-tier service.
This would be a tragedy, not just for users of those small and non-profit sites, but for everyone who ever had a dream of starting his own business on the Internet. As the founders of Google have said themselves, net neutrality is key to ensuring that the next two kids in a garage with an idea have their own chance at success.
Furthermore, prioritizing content from certain companies isn’t the only thing ISPs could do once they abandon net neutrality. They could also slow down or block some content entirely. That could be for pay, as with prioritizing YouTube content. For example, CNN.com could pay Verizon to speed up its content, and delay content from NBC.com. Or it could be for the ISP’s own benefit—Comcast, one of the largest ISPs, has a division called Comcast Interactive Media. Comcast Interactive Media owns movie ticket site Fandango.com, a social network called Plaxo, and a TV streaming site called FanCast.com that is similar to Hulu.
Comcast could easily deliver content from its own sites—Plaxo and Fandango and FanCast—faster than content from others. But the company could just as easily throttle, or even block, traffic from competing sites, like Hulu. Or, Comcast could just charge users extra for access to competing sites, while including its own sites in base-rate services. Not a member of Plaxo? How does an extra $10 a month for access to Facebook, MySpace and Linked In—let’s call it the “Social Networking” package—sound?
Finally, though profit incentives are the most likely reason for ISPs to take such steps, they might not be the only ones. Ideologically-motivated discrimination would be just as easy. If the New York Times publishes a story critical of Comcast, the ISP could easily block access to the story or slow down traffic to the site. An ISP with conservative management could just as easily block NYTimes.com altogether, or a liberal one could block Fox News.
The obvious argument against ISPs taking such steps is that they’d lose their customers. And that would certainly be true in some places. But in many other places, people have no or little choice of ISP. My last two apartments were served by Time Warner alone, and only in the last year have I had a choice: between Verizon and Time Warner. But many entire cities are served by a single ISP. And introducing competition isn’t easy, when it means installing new Internet cables under streets and in buildings.