Confusion, Misunderstandings, and Net Neutrality

I’ve seen a lot of argument back and forth on the issue of “Net Neutrality,” and one thing that really jumps out at me is how much confusion and misunderstanding there is regarding what the phrase “Net Neutrality” really means. This is an attempt to clear up some of the confusion.

At the root of the problem is that the phrase “Net Neutrality” is not actually a very accurate or descriptive phrase for the underlying problem it’s supposed to describe.

This is a problem because one you label a complex issue with a simple name, people will forget what the underlying issue is and simply take the meaning from the descriptive name – and if the name is misleading, then people will misunderstand the issue.

Don’t believe me? Just look at people arguing about “Global Warming.” Every time it snows somewhere that it doesn’t usually snow (or doesn’t usually snow very much) you will get people screaming that this means that “global warming” is a farce. “How can it be warming when it’s so cold out!” Because the phrase “global warming” was used to describe a more complex technical concept (e.g., the average temperature of the Earth rising by a few degrees, and the resulting climate changes that result from this), people forgot what the actual problem was and simply latched on to the name used to describe it. The same seems to be true for “Net Neutrality.”

People tend to see the word “neutrality” and think “that’s OK,” then they hear that Net Neutrality proponents want the government to step in to guarantee “net neutrality” and suddenly alarm bells start going off in their heads. “Wait a second, government is bad! If the network was ‘neutral’ wouldn’t that mean NO government regulation, instead of more?

So right off the bat here we’ve got misunderstandings caused simply by the name we use to refer to the problem.

The misunderstandings continue even as we try to clear up the confusion caused by having a confusing name. One common misunderstanding is that somehow the idea of “Net Neutrality” would forbid ISPs and such from enforcing QoS and other similar things. This again stems from a poor choice of words, usually someone trying to describe “Net Neutrality” as “treating all Internet traffic the same.”

A better way to describe it would be “not discriminating against Internet traffic based on where the traffic originated.

That is to say, as an ISP it’s fine for you to throttle video services, or VoIP, or whatever you want (or need), so long as you’re not doing that throttling (or, in some cases, blocking) solely based on where those bits originally came from.

To understand why anyone would want to do this in the first place, and why it suddenly seems like yes, they do want to do it and might even start trying to do it very soon unless we do something (which is why people are all in an uproar over “Net Neutrality” in the first place), it helps to understand a little bit of the situation with ISPs.

The biggest ISPs – at least consumer ISPs, and at least in America – are Phone (DSL) and Cable companies. These are companies that don’t just provide Internet access – they also provide another service along with it, and that other service is how they got their start (and may even still be their biggest provider of income).

The biggest concern to these companies is that you will use the Internet service they provide to get around the need for the other services that they provide (phone & cable TV), and eventually their other services will die out and they’ll be left as nothing but Internet providers. While they might do very well as Internet providers, they don’t want to give up the “sure thing” of their existing services – and they will fight hard to keep that from happening.

In the case of the phone companies, they don’t want you using VoIP or Skype or whatever, because then you won’t need a phone line anymore. With the cable TV companies, they don’t want you watching video online (especially things like Netflix streaming or Hulu or even some types of videos on YouTube) because then you won’t need their cable TV service anymore.

To put it more simply, ISPs want to be able to block (or force extra payment for) access to competing services, and Net Neutrality says that they shouldn’t be allowed to do this.

That phone and cable companies want to be able to block (or charge extra for) access to these competing services sort of makes sense, in a way. If you owned a coffee shop, you wouldn’t want lots of people sitting around in your shop drinking the coffee they bought from the competing shop across the street, taking up your space but not making you any money, right?

But this doesn’t work on the Internet any more than it does in real life. In most places you aren’t allowed do discriminate against your customers – you can’t kick someone out because they have a coffee cup from that chain across the street. (But it is worth noting that you can kick them out if they’re causing a ruckus, which in Internet terms means you can enforce QoS and throttling to prevent abuse.) You also aren’t allowed to build a wall across the street so that people can’t walk past your store to your competitor’s store.

Looking at this from another angle, imagine if your Verizon phone couldn’t call AT&T phones unless you paid extra money for that ability, or perhaps such calls would be billed at a higher rate.

In many ways, this is a lot like the concept of “common carriers.” Phone companies are considered “common carriers,” which is why the situation I described above can’t happen (it’s prohibited specifically by law). But ISPs aren’t considered “common carriers,” and this is the crux of Net Neutrality. It’s really more about fairness than neutrality in that way.

Think about it like this: I pay for my Internet access, which gives me a certain amount of bandwidth – which I can use however I want. The sites I choose to visit also pay for bandwidth on their end (often at a MUCH higher rate than I do). So why would you want to allow ISPs to charge these sites AGAIN just because the traffic from their site (which they have no control over who is requesting it) happens to go across the ISP’s network (on its way to customer who has already paid for this bandwidth, I might add)? This is what Net Neutrality advocates are worried will happen unless we adopt rules similar to those for common carriers.

This is especially troubling considering that many places (at least in the US) have very little choice in ISPs – for a very large portion of people, it’s either DSL from the phone company or cable Internet from the cable TV provider. So the usual answer to problems like this (“just vote with your wallet!”) doesn’t apply.

Other confusion regarding “Net Neutrality” of course comes from the fact that we’re trying to involve the government with it, and that’s always asking for trouble, no matter how noble the intentions. Suffice to say, politicians do not understand the concept embodied in the phrase “Net Neutrality” very well. As a result the legislative solutions they propose tend to fall short of addressing the real problem, or sometimes they go way too far and end up being more harmful than the original problem they were meant to solve!

However, just because government tends to be incompetent doesn’t mean that that the underlying issue doesn’t exist.

The concept of Net Neutrality, no matter how confusing its name, is an important issue. Government regulation may or may not be the ideal way to address it, but a lot of very smart people seem to think that it does at least need to be addressed somehow.

Hopefully this article has helped clear up some of the confusion about what “Net Neutrality” really means, so that at least we can all be on equal footing to debate its merits and potential solutions (or why no solution might be needed).