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June 8, 2006

Net Neutrality: What is it and why should I care?

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This is important.

As Congress gears up to start deliberations on the proposed bill that threatens to end net neutrality once and for all,
users are being bombarded with rumblings of Congressional hearings and a growing list of letters from search figureheads calling for them to act NOW. But what does it all mean? And should you, as a user of the Internet, even care?

What is network neutrality? In its simplest terms, net neutrality is about regulating the underlying infrastructure that the Internet runs on. It’s about treating all types of Internet traffic the same and moving all content at the same speed over the network. Essentially, it’s about keeping the Internet free.

Up until last year, the government regulated the Internet. Then, the FCC gave in to the telephone companies demands and eliminated network neutrality. They abolished the rules that kept telephone companies from discriminating against content providers and outraged search engines and free speech proponents everywhere.

It is now time for Congress to decide if they will reinstate net neutrality or allow the telephone companies to keep on regulating.

The telephone companies (collectively referred to as telcos) believe they should be the ones to regulate the Internet, as they are the ones who spent the billions of dollars creating the infrastructure the Internet runs on.. They want to end net neutrality and create a two-tier Internet system where Web sites would be charged at different levels depending on how fast they want their content delivered.

The telecommunications industry claims they need the additional revenue to pay for the fiber-optic upgrades that are necessary to handle the weight of the new broadband, video-rich Internet system.

The telcos are virtually the only group who feels this way. Maybe it’s because users already pay for their broadband access; or because should net neutrality be abolished, the telephone companies stand to make an excess of $2 billion a year. Either way, they stand alone.

Net neutrality advocates, like Microsoft, Google and a host of free speech proponents, have (rather dramatically) come forward claiming a two-tiered system would be ‘the death of the Internet’ and encourage four main things:

  • Promote Rampant Discrimination: Neutrality advocates fear telcos could eventually ‘price out’ the Internet so only the most affluent users could take advantage of its true scope. They also fear telcos will use these tiered pricing options to unjustly regulate which users get to see which content, or what content is even shown at all.
  • Higher Costs: Small businesses and individual content providers will be unable to provide the same level services as large corporations.
  • Reduced Investment: – Investors will have little reason to support new, Internet-based content and services if there is no guarantee they can even get on the net. Innovation will plummet.
  • Compromised Global Competitiveness: – The US will lose its lead on the Internet as innovation moves to more fertile, open markets overseas.

As the date of the vote looms nearer, more and more brass is coming out. Yesterday’s Google’s Senior Counsel came out urging users to ban together to oppose the bill. Today, Google CEO Eric Schmidt issued his statement, laying out a three step program that asks users to call their local Congressman, sign online petitions from ItsOurNet and SaveTheInternet.com and sign-up for a new Google Policy Alert list.

Microsoft’s Robert Scoble also reached out to users on his blog today, and we hear eBay is trying to rally its troops as well.

How does this affect you as a user? It turns your Internet into a two lane highway, with a fast lane that, once site owners pass the buck, you’ll have to pay to use and a slow lane you never wanted. The Internet was designed to be an equalizer, giving all users the same information. Ending net neutrality changes that. If you don’t want to see your Internet turned into pay-to-play system, we encourage you to follow Eric Schmidt’s advice and call your local Congressman.

Congress is said to make a decision regarding the matter in the next 36 hours.

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