Net Neutrality: What Is It and Why Do People Care?H ave you read news coverage of the “net neutrality” issue and then still wondered what it is exactly? If so, you’re not alone. It’s a complex issue and instead of helping us understand it, media coverage often obscures the facts and even confuses us more. That’s because outlets tend to favor a particular bias rather than provide balanced and data-based coverage (you can read about this bias in our analysis of the recent net neutrality coverage). Below, we answer the simple questions that media often doesn’t.
What is net neutrality?
“Net neutrality” refers to the concept that internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all data on the internet equally. The U.S. has had regulations in place on net neutrality since 2015.
What does this mean? Data on the internet travels through ISPs (such as Verizon or Comcast) to consumers who purchase their internet service. Some activity on the internet, such as streaming videos, require more data usage than other types, such as email or surfing the web. With net neutrality in place, the ISPs cannot slow down or block delivery of larger file types, or charge more for them.
The ISPs also cannot discriminate either for or against certain content providers, under net neutrality rules. For example, if an ISP company has its own video streaming service, it could not offer that service for free while charging additional money to stream from independent companies such as Netflix or Hulu.
Without net neutrality in place, ISPs would be allowed to charge more for certain types of services, or tiers of data usage. They could offer cheaper plans for people who, for instance, only want to access email and a browser, and more for people who stream videos or upload content.
What net neutrality isn’t?
Net neutrality refers to the type of data and does not directly relate to the messages within that data. In other words, if there was no net neutrality, an ISP could block, charge more for or slow down video files compared to text files, but not take action based on what’s in those videos. ISPs would not be allowed to prioritize or disfavor political content, by, for instance, slowing down or charging more for content associated with a particular political party or ideology. (Note that some people argue that content could be indirectly influenced if ISPs are allowed to prioritize certain file types or content from companies owned by the ISPs.)
If there were no net neutrality and there were tiered internet service plans, theoretically people who paid for the highest tiers could access any content available online without slowdowns or blocks.
What are some arguments in favor of net neutrality?
The main arguments for the government enforcing net neutrality have to do with counteracting large ISPs monopolies on the market, the promotion of tech entrepreneurship, and the promotion of equal access to information.
Since most people use the internet in many aspects of their lives, it is deemed an essential service. As the argument goes, because there are only a few large ISP companies to choose from, they have a lot of power to set and control prices. If there were no net neutrality, ISPs could create financial barriers for people to access types of internet content. They could also create “zero rating” plans that offer free sponsored content, influencing what people of limited means can access.
Some argue that this could discourage tech entrepreneurship by discriminating against companies that don’t have the resources to enter into deals with the ISPs to have their content prioritized. In other words, in an extreme case a new tech company could launch but very few people would have access to it.
Additionally, some argue that limited access to certain types of content could affect educational opportunities for lower-income people. Educational and training videos are often currently available on the internet for free, and people argue this can help narrow the education gap.
What are some arguments against net neutrality?
The main arguments against net neutrality tend to center around either free market solutions (anti-regulation), its effect on investment, fair pay-for-use pricing, or the concept of a sponsor-subsidized internet to increase access to those with fewer economic means.
First, some people argue that there should be minimal government regulation of industries like tech in general. The assumption here is that the market regulates itself and encourages the most competitive pricing models. If a company overcharges, as long as there is some alternative, its business will suffer and it will be forced to reduce prices.
Others argue that the U.S. government is too powerful and its oversight of the public’s consumption of internet content should be limited. (For instance, Glenn Greenwald alleges that the government already interferes with the manufacture of internet routers exported to China to install tools for spying.)
Some net neutrality opponents, including FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, argue that net neutrality discourages ISPs from investing in their networks or their own services like video streaming.
Some people also suggest it is fairer to have people pay for what they use. If a person downloads or uploads Gigabytes worth of data and uses more of the ISP’s bandwidth than a typical user, the argument is they should pay more. This would be similar to a person who uses more electricity and therefore has a higher bill than neighbors who use less.
Finally, an IEEE paper concluded that tiered pricing with sponsor-subsidized options could increase access for those with fewer economic resources and “bridge the digital divide between users who can easily afford the cost of mobile data and those who cannot.”
*Disclaimer: This is an overview of arguments for and against net neutrality, and is not intended to be a comprehensive list of all considerations. This is also not intended to comment on the validity or legitimacy of the various arguments for or against net neutrality.
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