Net neutrality has been in the news again recently. Most people don’t seem to understand what it entails. Let’s take a closer, more logical look at what it means.
First of all, what is the internet? Who owns it? The common answer is that the internet is a network of computers, and no one owns it. That answer is mostly true, but if no one owns the internet, what are you paying for when you buy it from your provider?
When you pay for internet service, you’re paying for access to that network of computers. You need the line that they ran to your house to access that network. Also, they own the computer(s) that all those lines they ran connect to. The computers they own are in charge of making sure that when you want to watch a movie, the request your computer sends, makes it to Netflix, and that Netflix’s response, the movie you wanted, makes it back to your computer.
All these computers that your internet provider runs are really fast, but they’re not infinitely fast, and they cost money to run and maintain. At some point, all those movies, and websites, and whatever else goes flying across the internet, starts to bump up against the limits of how many requests these computers can actually process. When that happens, they need to buy more, or faster computers to keep up.
So who pays for these upgrades? Some would argue that the internet provider should eat these costs. But eventually the numbers of requests and the numbers of customers will rise to the point that they will have to raise prices somewhere to stay in business.
Then the question becomes, in what way should prices be raised? The fairest way would probably be to charge the customers who send and/or receive the most requests (i.e. use the most bandwidth) more. That would mean large companies like Netflix, or Google, or Facebook would be charged more, and your average consumer or startup could be charged less. But under the rules of “net neutrality” the internet service providers (ISPs) aren’t allowed to discriminate between types or the amount of traffic. So the only option they have is to raise prices equally for everybody.
So, who does net neutrality really help, and who does it hurt? It helps the big companies avoid paying for the large amount of internet traffic they use. It hurts the small consumers and companies, because the ISPs have to cover their operating costs somehow, and under net neutrality it has to be everyone’s rates equally.
What about the ISPs? Isn’t net neutrality supposed to keep them in line? Why would they care? They weren’t trying to discriminate between traffic before, and now they don’t need to bother figuring out how. Also, they don’t have to care about what their rate structures look like so long as they on net cover their costs, so now they don’t need to figure out what a new rate structure would look like. Finally, any additional cost of conforming to these regulations makes it even harder for competitors to get started. So even if you are mad that they raise your rates to pay for it, what choice do you have? Any competition they would have had encouraging them to keep their prices low has now been prevented.
But won’t ISPs be able to restrict what you can and can’t access on the internet without net neutrality? No. The technology already exists to circumvent any restrictions they would try and impose. People are already using VPNs to circumvent restrictions that governments try to impose on the internet, and it would be no different with ISPs. Besides, why would they want to? If they prevent their customers from using their product the way the want to, aren’t they less likely to buy it? It’s pretty hard to stay in business if you drive your customers away.
So the next time someone says we need net neutrality rules to keep ISPs from sticking it to the little guys, remind them, we didn’t have any net neutrality rules in place until 2015, and the ISPs weren’t doing it before that, and net neutrality wouldn’t allow them to go after the big companies for driving up their operating costs. So in reality, net neutrality is what sticks it to the little guys and prevents the big companies from paying their fair share.