Boring Post!

May 3, 2014

Net neutrality! Heard the words? Wondered about them? Or maybe you’re a master of this particular universe.

I first read about net neutrality a few years ago on Daily Kos, though I must tell it true:  I was clueless, and was nominally pro-net neutrality because it seemed like the position I should be adopting. (Now, please, don’t get all high and mighty “I don’t vote for the party, I vote for the person” on me. We all use identifiers to help align ourselves on many, many issues, for we simply don’t have the time or candlepower to actually learn about and master what confronts us, en toto!)

“Net neutrality is the idea that any network traffic—movies, web pages, MP3s, pictures—can move from one place (our servers) to any other place (readers’ computers phones) without ‘discrimination.’” (I have no idea why “computers” is lined out.)

This simple formulation was borrowed from Net Neutrality:  A Guide to (and History of) a Contested Idea, a piece written for The Atlantic—posted on April 25—by Alexis Madrigal and Adrienne LaFrance. The discrimination here, as nearly as I can determine, has nothing to do with race, gender, or any other biases; instead, it’s about money. Basically, net neutrality gives no one an advantage when it comes to moving data, while other systems amount to “pay to play.”

The hubbub has come to our attention because the Federal Communications Commission has announced new rules that allow for Internet fast lanes, a method by which your Internet Service Provider (ISP) can charge a content provider more to move its data more quickly. Simply, Comcast can charge The Atlantic and use its system—I’m totally lost about now—to let The Atlantic’s pages load more quickly.

Now, net neutrality is not about The Atlantic or the New York Review of Books. It’s really about Netflix, Disney, and other providers whose high-bandwidth content takes up lots of space and slows everybody else down. Think of a highway—we’re just following the fast lane analogy—full of long haul trucks, paying nothing more than my Prius on a per mile basis. Seems like we ought to favor charging them! (And, per the article, there’s some charging already going on, apparently.)

Not so fast, maybe. Tom Wheeler chairs the FCC. In his prior life he was a lobbyist for the cable television and cell phone industries, which dominate the ISP world. In speaking about the new rules to the National Cable & Telecommunication Association on Wednesday he said the FCC “will not allow some companies to force Internet users into a slow lane so that others with special privileges can have superior service.” He added:

Let me be clear. If someone acts to divide the Internet between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots,’ we will use every power at our disposal to stop it.

Call me skeptical!!!

I’m still not sure about how I feel about this issue. I appreciate the technological limitations associated with band-width. (Ironically, given the anti-science movement, science really does rule on many, many issues.) And I’m a “have” in the “have/have-not” dichotomy, so long as any impact is monetary and relatively small. On the other hand, on this issue I have a sense that unintended consequences alarms should be ringing really loudly in the ears of policymakers. Further complicating matters are the facts that:  (a) neither our laws or our court systems judges are adequate to deal with the complicated issues we’ll face when regulations are implemented and challenged; and (b) consumers and business interests play on a tilted field.

Regular people have limited ability to influence policy on this issue. First, it’s technical stuff. (Read The Atlantic piece and report back to me if you think you really understand the issues.) Second, it’s abstract. We want clean air. Some of us don’t want guns in our bars; others do. Choice re:  abortion is, at its most complicated, safe, legal, and rare. Et cetera. And net neutrality? I’ve spent roughly 700 words on the topic here, and have a long way to go before I’m worried about scratching the surface

If you have a little while, plow through The Atlantic piece. The overview is very readable and helpful, with several links to pieces that added to my understanding of the issue.

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