Net Neutrality: What It is, Why It Matters and How It Affects the U.S.

Over the past year, much of the news has been filled with articles about net neutrality. With the Federal Communications Commission’s recent repeal of net neutrality, many Americans have been scratching their heads trying to understand what net neutrality really is, why it matters and how it affects them.

Well we’ve got you covered. Though net neutrality rules are not currently in effect the United States, there is still continued debate over its impact on society, the regulatory future and more. The following guide will help you navigate those persistent conversations with ease.

What is Net Neutrality?

The term was first coined in Tim Wu’s 2003 paper titled, “Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination.” It was his argument that a level playing field among internet applications was needed to protect service providers and consumers alike. While society’s knowledge and usage of the term has continued to grow, wide-spread confusion continues to impede understanding.

By definition, net neutrality is the principle that internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favoring or blocking particular products or websites. It means having access to the sites and services you want — whenever, wherever or however you please.

Specifically, net neutrality addresses the internet access service provider’s grant to customers. As Wired aptly explains, it’s the idea that providers “shouldn’t be able to slide some data into ‘fast lanes’ while blocking or otherwise discriminating against other material.” Under net neutrality video streaming services such as Netflix, YouTube, your mandatory company video conference or any other services for that matter are protected from discriminatory business practices that require additional payment or fines.

If that seems like common sense to you, it’s because this is the standard under which the internet has largely functioned since its inception. Only in the last decade did service providers begin manipulating access their customers had to the internet — which led to the initial establishment of the Open Internet Order in April 2015. Known as the net neutrality bill, the Open Internet Order established the internet as a public utility in the U.S., preventing businesses from influencing consumer access.

Why Does Net Neutrality Matter?

Tech Republic said it best: “Net neutrality matters because it has the potential to shape the future of the internet, and with it our access to knowledge.”

Net neutrality by default controls pricing and ensures consumers won’t be nickel-and-dimed to access their beloved sites and services. Without the protective measures, there is a potential for service providers to segment internet services into different “service lanes.” For example, if you wanted access to video streaming services, your provider might require a video premium subscription on top of your regular internet bills.

In 2012, AT&T did just that. The service provider was caught limiting bandwidth access for any users trying to use FaceTime, and only providing full service for users who paid additional money for AT&T’s extra shared data plans. Though improbable, no net neutrality protections mean that internet packages could look like those of cable — with separate plans with additional costs for access to premium content such as sports or movies.

Alternatively, net neutrality also prevents the providers from making the services themselves front the bill. Take Netflix for instance. Although the company is responsible for much of the data streaming in the country, net neutrality prevents service providers from throttling streaming speeds until Netflix is forced to pay fees to restore service quality.

Essentially, net neutrality ensures that internet providers can’t hold the internet hostage and piecemeal service and content out only to customers and businesses that pay additional fees on top of their basic internet.

How Could Net Neutrality Affect Americans?

As of June 11, 2018, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission has repealed many of the core net neutrality rules established by the prior Open Internet Order bill.

This means that in the U.S., internet service providers are no longer banned from blocking, throttling and prioritizing users and services as they wish. Though some of the big-name providers such as Comcast have vowed allegiance to an open internet — free from site-blocking or network-throttling — many are still skeptical of how long such vows will last in the face of potential profits. While the future of the internet continues to remain unclear, one thing is certain: People will continue to debate and speculate the implications and effects well into the future.

In the meantime, if you are concerned about how you may be personally affected by the repeal of net neutrality, the best method is to stay informed. Read the emails from your own service provider. Check their website concerning updates to their service plans and packages, and look for materials and messaging about service blocking, throttling and prioritization.

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