There are times when I feel incredibly lucky to live in Canada. This is one of them. Between the Comcast/Time Warner merger and the FCC’s blatant mishandling of net neutrality (do they even understand what it is?), the Internet down in the States seems poised on the brink of war. In a way, it is. And believe me when I say that this is one conflict we all have a very large stake in.
One thing, before we start getting into the hard details. For the uninitiated, net neutrality is the principle that both ISPs and governments should treat all information on the Internet equally. What that means as far as you’re concerned is that you as a user are allowed to access all websites on even footing. An ISP cannot, for example, artificially degrade your connectivity to Netflix because they don’t like how much bandwidth its using; similarly, they cannot block YouTube simply because they don’t like the content that appears on the site. In essence, it’s the idea that if you’re paying for an Internet connection, you should have free access to what’s on the Internet.
Seems fair, right?
Not surprisingly, there are some ISPs who dislike net neutrality. It’s bad for business. It costs them money. These ISPs artificially impose bandwidth caps, limiting access to certain high-bandwidth applications. They’d like nothing more than to take that a step further, setting up toll gates for content providers. They dream of a future where any organization that doesn’t pay the toll is struck with degraded service. It’s extortion, sure; but who’s going to stop them?
Comcast is one of these organizations, and many worry that its acquisition of Time Warner will allow it enough market power to bring about such a future. The FCC’s recent legislation (which might still be shut down if they hear enough negative feedback about it) will only make things easier.
Let me put things a little differently. In the words of Reddit user Echono, imagine Sony purchases your local power company. They roll out a new deal where you’re required to pay them a flat rate per month (based on the size of your home) and they’ll provide you with enough electricity to power everything you could possibly need. Sounds like a pretty fair deal, so you accept it (the fact that it’s the only offer on the table notwithstanding).
A few months down the line, Samsung releases an awesome new kind of TV, and everyone wants one. You yourself immediately rush out to buy one, and the first thing you notice is how much electricity it sucks up. You’d be concerned about this, except that you’re paying a flat rate, so it doesn’t really matter. After all, Sony did promise to provide you with all the electricity you could possibly need, right?
Now, Sony notices that these TVs are putting a bit of a strain on the grid. Although they’re still making a profit, they realize they might actually have to spend money in order to upgrade the grid. That simply won’t do. Instead, they decide to install new monitors outside everyone’s home, allowing them to artificially limit the amount of electricity to Samsung TVs. Naturally, a few customers are miffed, and Sony responds by telling them that for a few extra dollars a month, they can watch their TV as much as they want.
Samsung naturally doesn’t appreciate this, so they confront Sony about it. Unfortunately, Sony responds by informing Samsung that they need to cough up some money if they want people to be able to watch their TVs. Samsung knows its extortion, but because Sony controls the grid, they’ve no choice. Where the electrical industry is concerned, Sony’s basically an 800-pound gorilla: they can do whatever they want. Samsung coughs up, and as a result Samsung TVs work for six hours a day. Next thing you know, Sony decides to bring out its own version of Samsung’s product, with no power cap.
Since there’s no way Samsung can compete, they eventually go out of business.
That’s basically what Comcast is trying to do to the Internet. Now, do you still want to know why you should care about Net Neutrality?