What Is Net Neutrality?

Net neutrality is one of the biggest policy debates around the internet, and the government has voted to officially repeal the net neutrality regulations. Here’s what net neutrality is, and how it affects you.

In short, “net neutrality” refers to the principle that all internet traffic should be treated equally, without discrimination. Net neutrality says that internet service providers should transmit data without giving preference to certain companies or types of data. Opponents say the government should not regulate how internet providers run their business.

How the Internet Currently Works

Under net neutrality, internet providers are not allowed to give preferential treatment to certain types of data. Whether you’re accessing How-To Geek, Google, or a tiny website running on shared hosting somewhere, your Internet service provider treats these connections equally, sending data to you at the same speed.

This is how the internet has always worked, for the most part, and these rules were enforced thanks to a set of net neutrality regulations passed in recent years. Internet providers are currently classified as “common carriers”, essentially making them subject to the same regulations as other utilities, like wired phone lines. As a result, the government could step in and say “no, you can’t do that” if an internet provider is shown giving preferential treatment to certain types of traffic.

For example, in 2012, AT&T subscribers couldn’t use FaceTime on their iPhones unless they upgraded to one of AT&T’s newer, more expensive shared data plans. Even though FaceTime worked fine on older plans, AT&T wanted people to pay more for their service, so they blocked FaceTime on anything except Wi-Fi. This would be against today’s net neutrality rules, and the FCC could intervene and force AT&T to treat that data equally, no matter what data plan a person was using.

The implications of this are many. Imagine if Comcast made Netflix slow so that you’d be more tempted to subscribe to Comcast’s own NBC or Xfinity streaming services. They could force Netflix (or you) to pay them more money in order to make Netflix streams faster and higher quality. Those are the kind of things internet providers could be allowed to do if net neutrality regulations didn’t exist.

Why Net Neutrality Is In the News

Not everyone agreed with these regulations, however. Opponents say that internet providers are private companies that should be allowed to operate however they want—after all, if you don’t like it, you can move to another internet provider (as long as another one is offered in your area, which isn’t always the case).

Many of these net neutrality regulations were just passed in the last few years, but as with anything in government, opponents are always looking for ways to dismantle them. The FCC recently voted to repeal those net neutrality regulations, which will now allow internet providers to adjust traffic as they see fit.

The Debate: Should Net Neutrality Be Regulated?

Many of the arguments around net neutrality don’t come down to whether net neutrality is good in and of itself, but whether government regulation is necessary to preserve it or whether that regulation is harmful to future innovation.

Major Internet companies like Google and Microsoft, along with consumer advocate groups, tend to support net neutrality, arguing that Internet service providers shouldn’t be able to discriminate against certain types of connections and content. Major telecommunications companies, along with the usual anti-government-regulation interest groups, tend to oppose net neutrality, arguing that governments shouldn’t tell Internet service providers how to run their networks, and that it could hamper innovation.

Whether you support network neutrality or think the government shouldn’t be handing down rules, it’s clear to see that “net neutrality” has been the way the Internet has worked so far. It’s possible that the internet would only change in small ways without net neutrality regulations, but it could change in big ways too. The real problem is the lack of competition: if you don’t have another internet provider in your area to switch to, the internet companies aren’t incentivized to care about what you want.

Image Credit: Free Press Action Fund on FlickrKIUI on Flickr, Thomas Belknap on Flickr

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry.Connect with him on Twitter.

Whitson Gordon is is the editor-in-chief of How-To Geek. He is also a Windows user, PC builder, metalhead, chopstick-using potato chip eater, and Midwest-to-Southern California transplant. You can follow his nerdy exploits on Twitter and Facebook.

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