What is net neutrality?

Maybe you’ve heard the term and maybe you’ve never been curious before. But, with “over-the-top” streaming services like Netflix getting more popular, it’s something you might want to get familiar with.

Net neutrality is the idea that an internet service provider must provide all data to you at the same speed and with the same quality no matter what it is or where it comes from. It sounds pretty straightforward, but the more you dig into it, the more confusing it gets.

Let’s say you get your internet from Verizon, your conventional TV from DIRECTV and you use a streaming box (also called an over-the-top box) to watch Hulu and Netflix. You’re a blogger, so you connect to several servers every day to download and upload large chunks of data. You run a small web server in your home for friends and family to store and view pictures. All of that is perfectly legal. There are just a few problems…

Verizon competes with DIRECTV for TV service but DIRECTV relies on your internet bandwidth for on-demand. Netflix and Hulu are competitors too, and on an average night, up to 33% of Verizon’s bandwidth can be used up by Netflix. Connecting to remote servers and storing photos aren’t against the law, but it’s hard to tell the difference between that and illegal file sharing.

What’s the solution? Verizon says, the solution is that when it sees traffic going to Netflix’s servers or DIRECTV’s servers, it’s going to intentionally slow it down. They’re going to watch you and if they see any illegal file sharing or even just see you using more than, say, 300GB/month of data, they’re going to slow you way down. Verizon has the right to do that today.

Everyone agrees that Verizon has the right to manage its bandwidth. They can choose to charge you more, or slow you down based on your usage, and the government actually encourages them to try to find illegal file sharing sites that use Verizon wires. Where it gets hairy is the part where Verizon wants to strangle your bandwidth down just because you’re using one of their competitors.

Plenty of high-profile folks, including Sir Tim Berners-Lee, believe that the internet should be free and “neutral,” that it shouldn’t be legal to try to cut out the competition by cutting out your ability to connect to them. That way lies madness, they say, and they point to the possibility that your service provider could one day block any site they wanted to completely.

On the other side of the fence are some prominent businesses as well as taxpayer groups affiliated with the Ayn Rand foundation, who believe that government intervention, even government intervention designed to keep the playing field level, is wrong and they think that if Verizon owns the wires they can do whatever they want.

What do you think? If net neutrality became the law, every service provider would lose a measure of control over its bandwidth, but if all net neutrality went away, then service providers could censor you without you knowing it. Which is worse?