What Is Net Neutrality And Why Does It Matter To You?

The tug-of-war for Internet real estate.

Net neutrality is an increasingly popular buzzword (or buzzphrase, if you will) that's picked up steam in recent years, but as is often the case with such terms, it's a lot easier to throw around than actually comprehend. Now that more than 3 billion people use the Internet, the battle between Internet service providers (ISPs) and content-providing giants such as Google, Facebook, Netflix, etc., over how to fairly govern access to all the products and services that live on the Internet has become crucial. As regular citizens of the world that want to use the Internet freely, this begs the question: what is net neutrality? Furthermore, why should we care?

It's simple: the Internet is quickly becoming as essential as running water and electricity, and as such, regulating its use has become just as political. In February of this year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) passed net neutrality regulations that in theory are very straightforward. They state that all consumers should have equal access to all legal content on the Internet, and block ISPs from deliberately slowing or limiting access to anything that may be in competition with their own services. That's all good and fine, but naturally there are gray areas that the FCC's rules don't quite cover.

For example, T-Mobile (an ISP) has recently come out with a promotion called Binge On, which allows customers access to certain content that won't count against their data plan. It's an enticing offer, one that FCC chief Tom Wheeler has called "highly innovative and highly competitive," but that's exactly what makes it questionable under net neutrality laws. By positioning content from some providers as "free" with respect to data impact, customers are naturally more inclined to spring for those providers. And if large ISPs like T-Mobile are the gatekeepers to such deals, it muscles out smaller companies who may have better products to offer.

There's inevitably a conflict of interest when it comes to providing access to content and services on the Internet, and having your own services that you prefer users to go to. Facebook is at the forefront of expanding Internet access worldwide through its Internet.org project and has, in isolated cases, begun offering developing areas curated Internet packages heavily featuring Facebook products. It can be argued that some Internet is better than none, but it's not difficult to see how this creates an unfair advantage for the company.

Moving forward, as both the number of people on the Internet and the Internet of Things continue to grow, net neutrality's complexity and importance will also grow. As regular consumers of countless internet products, there's little we can directly do to ensure our window to the World Wide Web remains fair and balanced. However, just as with any political issue, educating yourself goes a long way toward voicing an opinion prior to major decisions like the FCC's ruling earlier this year. If you've ever had a frustrating conversation with your ISP (bless you if you haven't), you're likely to want to take the power out of their hands as much as possible.

So as you read this article published on the Internet, remember how you found it in the first place. For everyone's sake, let's make sure that experience stays easy.

Cover image: Backbone Campaign via Flickr