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Net Neutral

Net neutrality – that’s the topic du jour in matters technical.

It’s a confused, and confusing, subject.

And like most topics of argument, it’s not as simple as a right-wrong dichotomy.

Net “neutrality” refers to the idea that all on the Internet should be treated equally: no discrimination based upon user, content, website, platform, application, type of attached equipment or method of communication.

So let’s break this down.

We can move from the outside in (that is, from the “content” toward the receiving device), or from the inside out (from the receiving device to the supplier of content). Either way, it’s more or less the same. Some steps on the chain aren’t really in question. But for the sake of creating a map, here is an “outside in” chain: content (website, application, digital movie) —basically the information rendered in digital form— platform (code, host, Unix/Microsoft/Apple etc.) – backbone (the Internet itself, or a dispersed bunch of computers that receive and pass the packets of information) – ISP (the Internet Service Provider – the gateway between your device and this Internet) – a search engine (like Google, which searches out and indexes the content coded and hosted world-wide) – a browser (the software like Chrome or Safari that renders all of that content into words, pictures, and activities that you, human, can interact with). That’s highly simplified, but the general picture.

Ideally, none of these things would be “forbidden.” So, if your website is on a Unix machine and it’s selling pornographic material to users anywhere in the world who might be accessing it through Spectrum or an ISP in China, and you’re viewing it on your phone or your Mac laptop, at no point along the way should there be anything but voluntary suppression of that content.

Now, let’s add in the money. Suffice to say that most content suppliers need to, or at least would prefer to, be paid in some way for their time and effort. A hobbyist or blogger might be willing to supply content just for the fun of it, but he or she will have to pay on some level for the privilege of presenting material to the world: software to create and digitize the information, a computer upon which to run this software, a host to house the software and handle the demands for the content to be supplied (the “hits” on the website), and a connection to the Internet. At a minimum. So, all along the way there are opportunities to sell the necessary bits and pieces, and for someone to make a profit.

Net neutrality figures into this in terms of any entity at any point along the way being able to charge you less or more to offer your content than the guy down the street. Ideally, we’d be charged the way we’re charged for any “utility,” which is to say: I take seven showers a day and water my lawn; you shower once a week and don’t have a lawn. I pay more for my water bill than you do. But, your water should not be shut off, or you should not be limited when you turn on the faucet because you pay less – it should simply be a matter of usage.

Now think about cable: we pay a fee for service. The fee has always been based on what you get – and most of us have gnashed our teeth about the “bundling” of channels, most of which we don’t want, with the few that we do. And charging a “premium” for channels that are very popular or offer a very expensive product (like HBO in the old days – you paid extra to have that service because it offered recent-release movies). The cable company got paid to carry a channel, and got paid to deliver the channel. Nice deal.

The Internet did an end-run around that eventually by offering direct-to-user content in the form of Netflix or Amazon Prime. If you have an Internet connection, you subscribed to Netflix and then ordered your movies that way. After a while, more and more cable subscribers “cut the cord,” as in, eliminated the cable and just used the Internet to get their films and series that were created just for that platform, or had been shown on cable and then the following year were offered for a fee via an Internet subscription service. The content creator was paid no matter what – the cable company had the advantage of having first crack at showing the series, and in some cases, also selling advertising. Then the content creation services offered “streaming” options: pay a little extra and see the whole series at once, or a week or two before it’s offered via cable.

No matter how you look at this part of the question, sooner or later a happy price point will be established. Too much, and people won’t pay it. Too little, and you won’t be making enough to pay your costs. You start there and keep inching up until people start dropping off: fair trade has been established.

Nevertheless, some of the argument of “net neutrality” is based upon cost. The issue is if a heavy user is charged more, while that may be fair for an individual, it may not be “fair” in the case of a school or a library, which is offering Internet service to people who would otherwise not be able to pay for the service. Service is service, say these people. In the old days, you paid for service by the minute – so a heavy user would pay far more than a light user. As in, in the old days, you paid a flat fee for local telephone service, but by the minute for a long-distance call. With technology advances, telephone has ended up being a flat fee commodity, and Internet service more or less went the same way: you paid a fee for unlimited use, rather than being very careful to disconnect your modem after an online session as we did in the 90s.

It’s also true, of course, that once a phone call was a phone call was a phone call, a single person who spent very little time on the phone was underwriting the actual time spent on the phone by a family of 5 with three teenagers in terms of the money the phone company needed to collect to make their enterprise work.

And with flat-fee Internet, this is also true for a family (or individual) who is running a server out of their home, or using a lot of bandwidth every day on movies and games, versus the person who checks emails a few times a week.

So, from the standpoint of fees, there is an argument to be made that those who use the most —either sending or receiving— should pay the most. That’s not neutrality.

But the other part of the equation is what is being sent and received. Net neutrality says that a byte is a byte, and the ISP and all other steps along the chain of send-receive should be unconcerned about the content. Yes, a particular platform can reject content (so, Facebook can refuse an ad it finds offensive, or prohibit a group it finds beneath its standards) – though now we step into territory that’s rather like the baker and the cake: if you offer cake (a platform for users to share ideas) can you refuse to bake it (can you refuse to allow it to be seen) just because you don’t agree with its message?

Net neutrality says you cannot, or should not, inhibit content based upon whether you agree or disagree with it on principle.

It also says that you can’t throttle down speed for certain content (so, your movie just won’t play right!) for either dis-favored content, or content providers who didn’t ante up for preferred status. This, among other problems, would create a barrier to entry, which the free market (at least in the US) doesn’t like.

While various countries have taken a variety of stances on this subject (and some do, indeed, filter content they feel their citizens should not be getting), perhaps the best “solution” was posed by policy experts Bauer and Obar: “ … safeguarding multiple goals requires a combination of instruments that will likely involve government and non-government measures. Furthermore, promoting such goals as the freedom of speech, political participating, investment, and innovation calls for complementary policies.”

Nancy Roberts