” Okay, ever since our big Net Neutrality Crowdfunding, we’ve had some new readers who aren’t as familiar with the details and issues — yet we’ve been mostly writing as if everyone is informed of the basics. So, we figured it only made sense to take a step back and do a bit of an explainer about net neutrality.
What is net neutrality?
This is not an easy answer, actually, which, at times, is a part of the problem. The phrase, first coined by law professor Tim Wu, referred originally to the concept of the end-to-end principle of the internet, in that anyone online could request a webpage or information from any online service, and the internet access provider (usually called internet service providers or ISPs) in the middle would deliver that information. At the time, the ISPs were starting to make noises about how they wanted to “charge” service providers to reach end users, effectively setting up toll booths on the internet. This kicked off in earnest in October of 2005, when SBC (which became AT&T) CEO Ed Whitacre declared that internet companies were using “his pipes for free.”
The phrase has been warped and twisted in various directions over the years, but the simplest way to think about it is basically whether or not your ISP — the company you pay for your internet access (usually cable, DSL or fiber, but also wireless, satellite and a few others) — can pick winners and losers by requiring certain companies to pay the ISP more just to be available to you (or available to you in a “better” way). John Oliver probably summarized it best by arguing that it’s about “preventing cable company fuckery” (though, to be clear, it goes beyond just cable companies).
The internet access providers claim that service providers, like Netflix and Google, are getting a “free ride” on their network, since those services are popular with their users, and they’d like to get those (very successful) companies to pay.
Wait, so internet companies don’t pay for bandwidth?
They absolutely do pay for their bandwidth. And here’s the tricky part of this whole thing. Everyone already pays for their own bandwidth. You pay your access provider, and the big internet companies pay for their bandwidth as well. And what you pay for is your ability to reach all those sites on the internet. What the internet access providers are trying to do is to get everyone to pay twice. That is, you pay for your bandwidth, and then they want, say, Netflix, to pay again for the bandwidth you already paid for, so that Netflix can reach you. This is under the false belief that when you buy internet service from your internet access provider, you haven’t bought with it the ability to reach sites on the internet. The big telcos and cable companies want to pretend you’ve only bought access to the edge of their network, and then internet sites should have to pay extra to become available to you. In fact, they’ve been rather explicit about this. Back in 2006, AT&T’s Ed Whitacre stated it clearly: “I think the content providers should be paying for the use of the network – obviously not the piece for the customer to the network, which has already been paid for by the customer in internet access fees, but for accessing the so-called internet cloud.” In short, the broadband players would like to believe that when you pay your bandwidth, you’re only paying from your access point to their router. It’s a ridiculous view of the world, somewhat akin to pretending the earth is still flat and at the center of the universe, but in this case, the broadband players pretend that they’re at the center of the universe.”