Net Neutrality for Dummies
January 6, 2010 9:11 AM   Subscribe

I don't understand net neutrality. I don't know what it is and I don't know how I'm supposed to feel about it. Help

Pretend I am a sixth grader. Explain this to me and make an appeal for the position I should hold.

Please God no more dissertations. Anything about the internet turns up BOOKS when searched for on the internet.

I'm an idiot. Help me.
posted by jefficator to Computers & Internet (29 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
The Wikipedia entry is concise.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:15 AM on January 6, 2010

Response by poster: You and I differ greatly in our definition of concise.
posted by jefficator at 9:18 AM on January 6, 2010 [16 favorites]

Have you looked at Save The Internet?
posted by yaymukund at 9:19 AM on January 6, 2010

Once upon a time there was an airline. The airline sold seats on airplanes. One day the airline realized not everyone used what they were entitled to, and it could oversell its capacity. So it started selling x% extra seats.

Some time later there was an international conglomerate that flew its businesspeople all over. They were flying for work so they rarely had work conflicts; every businessperson made every flight. This caused a problem when a lot of businesspeople flew, because the airline would have too many customers not getting what they paid for; the businesspeople changed how well x worked.

In response, the airline could have studied how its customers acted and responded by changing x. With a smaller x, its true that the airline would have to spend more on capital infrastructure (buy more planes), but they would get lots of repeat conglomerate business and their customers would be happier.

But that's not what the airline did. Instead, the airline decided to limit the number businesspeople that could board a flight they booked. This had the effect of (a) unfairly discriminating against a customer that entered into a good faith contract with the airline; and (b) curtailing passengers' privacy by doing deep ticket analysis to see what kind of passenger they were.

In response, someone in Congress started talking about Passenger Neutrality laws to prevent this kind of deep packet ticket inspection and discriminating against different kinds of data passengers. However, the proposal didn't garner a lot of support at first because a lot of people didn't understand. You see, unfortunately, they didn't have any sort of analogy or anything to help them.
posted by jock@law at 9:26 AM on January 6, 2010 [32 favorites]

Pro Net Neutrality: Treat the internet like the phone system. You can't charge people different amounts for who they are, or what they're talking about.

Anti Net Neutrality: Making laws about what private companies do with their own networks is bad, government should stay out of it.
posted by blue_beetle at 9:26 AM on January 6, 2010 [10 favorites]

Without net neutrality, the company that you pay for internet access could charge you more to visit certain web sites, or could block some sites altogether.

Or they could also just slow some web sites down: for example the Comcast video site might work very well, while youtube would be slow, etc.
posted by washburn at 9:26 AM on January 6, 2010 [3 favorites]

In a nutshell: the question is should your Internet Service Provider (ISP) be allowed to treat some of your communications differently than others? Network Neutrality (NN) is the idea that they should not.

Those Pro-NN say that, absent legal prohibition, the ISPs will use their ability to throttle types of communications (say, bittorrent) or traffic to/from different addresses (say, youtube) and/or charge a fee for faster (or any) service.

Those Anti-NN say that NN would restrict the ISPs from implementing solutions that would encourage/enable types of communications that would benefit from preferential treatment (say, favoring video conferencing, where dropped bits of communication are more noticable, over file downloading.)
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 9:27 AM on January 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

In a nutshell, Net neutrality is "all traffic is equal". Obviously there's more to it than that, but that's the basic idea.

It holds that giving privileged treatment to traffic to/from your affiliates sites/services is wrong, because that privilege is at the cost of every other site/service, is an unfair advantage for your affiliates and restricts the freedom of your users.

(privileged treatment would usually mean "loads faster")

More or less.
posted by Lorc at 9:27 AM on January 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

From yaymukund's link above, here's a good summary video that a sixth grader would get. The FAQ is good too.
posted by Kimberly at 9:28 AM on January 6, 2010

(say, favoring video conferencing, where dropped bits of communication are more noticable, over file downloading.)

I think you have that a little backwards...

posted by jock@law at 9:29 AM on January 6, 2010

Net Neutrality means preventing the companies you pay to service your internet connection and the government from putting restrictions on what you can access.

"Simply put, net neutrality is a network design paradigm that argues for broadband network providers to be completely detached from what information is sent over their networks." (source)

excellent video:
posted by royalsong at 9:30 AM on January 6, 2010

Response by poster: ChurchHatesTucker: I love explanations that frame the position of both sides in the most positive light they could imagine.
posted by jefficator at 9:31 AM on January 6, 2010

All right, I'll probably screw this up horribly.

But consider your cable TV service. Your provider offers several tiers of service. You get the basic channels, and crap nobody wants like home shopping, pretty cheap. Pay more money and you get more channels. If you really like a particular channel, but it's only available in a high-tier offering, you have to pay for that offering, whether you want all the other channels it includes or not. Or, you may not be able to get a channel at all if your provider doesn't carry it for whatever reason. (In the real world, these reasons have included their belief that not enough people want that channel, and squabbles over money between the channels and the cable companies.) So if you love BBC America, but your provider doesn't offer it -- or you can't afford the high level tier that includes it -- you can't tune your TV to BBC America and watch it.

The Internet currently doesn't work this way. You can go to any site you want, anywhere in the world, and the information gets piped through your Internet provider to your PC without the Internet Provider having much of a say so about it. This is net neutrality.

What Internet providers would like to do is have a non-neutral net that works more like cable TV. This would allow them to do things like block you from material they don't approve of (mainly file sharing stuff), or charge more for really popular things, or make deals with content providers to push their content to you rather than letting you pick what you want.

You should be opposed to this because it will cost you money, reduce your ability to do what you want on the Internet, and allow Internet providers to essentially treat you as a captive resource to be sold to advertisers rather than a customer.

That's about as simple as I can make it. Perhaps someone else with a more complete view will patch up any holes I've left.
posted by Naberius at 9:32 AM on January 6, 2010 [6 favorites]

Net neutrality is best described as non-discrimination-- that your internet service provider may not give preferential treatment to certain sites and services over those sites' competitors and not decide which sites and services on the internet you can access.

In a non-neutral Internet, internet service providers (like your local cable or telephone company) could make a deal with a specific publisher to prioritize traffic from that publisher's sites instead of traffic from that publisher's competitors. So if your ISP made a deal with Yahoo, you would be able to get to Ask Yahoo very quickly, but then your ISP could also make it very difficult and slow to get to Ask Metafilter and require carriage fees from Metafilter to get the same level of service-- even if Metafilter and Yahoo each paid for the same amount of bandwidth from their servers to the internet backbone.

This speech from Senator Al Franken is one of the better advocacy pieces in favor of net neutrality: The Need for Net Neutrality (delivered at the Future of Music Coalition Washington, DC October 5, 2009):
"Right now, a blog loads just as quickly as a corporate webpage. An email from your mother comes through just as smoothly as a bill notification from your bank. An independent bookstore can process your order as quickly as Barnes and Noble. A garage band can stream its songs just as easily as a multi-platinum superband, like REM.

"But recently, business executives from top ISPs have declared their interest in offering, quote, 'prioritized' Internet service to companies who can pay for it. In other words, a company like Microsoft or Amazon could pay for its content to be delivered over a high-speed network – relegating a blogger or a mom-and-pop business to the slow lane.

"That would transform the Internet from a free, open, and competitive playing field into a 'pay- for-play' arena in which citizen bloggers, nonprofits, and small businesses are simply outgunned by major media conglomerates."
And here's a concise summation from FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski in proposing a framework for the FCC to adopt with regards to regulating the Internet: "The... principle is one of non-discrimination -- stating that broadband providers cannot discriminate against particular Internet content or applications. This means they cannot block or degrade lawful traffic over their networks, or pick winners by favoring some content or applications over others in the connection to subscribers’ homes. Nor can they disfavor an Internet service just because it competes with a similar service offered by that broadband provider. The Internet must continue to allow users to decide what content and applications succeed."
posted by andrewraff at 9:36 AM on January 6, 2010 [3 favorites]

Basically some of the larger Internet Server Providers want to charge you based on what you want to do online. They want to filter what sites you are able to go to, based on how much you pay.

Check this fake advert out for an idea of what could happen should Net Neutrality fail.
posted by plexi at 9:37 AM on January 6, 2010 [4 favorites]

Think of it this way: currently, the internet more or less works like a telephone: you dial up any URL you want and your ISP connects to it, regardless of whom you're calling or what you want to talk about. Proponents of net neutrality believe that ISPs want to give preferential treatment to websites who pay a premium and thereby make the internet more like cable TV.

The argument from the ISP side is that they need to manage network traffic so that a small percentage of users don't overwhelm network capacity and degrade performance for everyone else, and that government regulation of ISPs will stifle innovation.
posted by fogovonslack at 9:38 AM on January 6, 2010

on a neutral net, the providers (comcast, at&t, verizon) would never care what it was being used for. if the net was not neutral, a provider could prioritize certain kinds of traffic or certain websites.

one scary analogy would be if you picked up the phone to call your local pizza joint, but your telephone company told you that you had to wait 5 minutes for your call to get through, or that you could press one to be immediately connected to their preferred pizza restaurant.

the providers say everything's fine the way it is and that they have no plans for do anything so evil. they say they do need to modify traffic a little bit to guarantee quality of service.

generally, geeks are all for net neutrality. generally, providers of service are against.
posted by maulik at 9:40 AM on January 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

My understanding:

In a net-neutral world, company A pays for bandwidth to connect their server to the Internet and person B pays for internet access into their home. The middle-men have only one roll: move bits. That is what they are paid to do, and they do not care what the bits contain, just how many of them they have to move, and whether that number falls within the limits that A and B have paid for. This is legislated by law and actively monitored, and companies that violate the rules get sanctioned.

In other words, this scenario makes a certain kind of agreement illegal, even if everyone involved is fully informed of the ramifications and wants to make the agreement. This happens all the time and is a good thing. For example, I can't legally sell myself into a lifetime of slavery in the US even if I wanted to.

In a non-net-neutral world, company A is extorted by internet service provider B so that A's content is not disrupted on its way to the home of C, a paying customer of B. Company D, which has not paid off ISP B, regularly has its traffic disrupted so that it cannot compete with other companies, such as company A.

This will lead to weird situations that limit freedom of access, freedom of speech, and competition (the part of capitalism that works). For example, imagine that people in country 1 all go to YouTube because their ISPs have successfully extorted money from Google. Because of this, YouTube videos load fast and seamlessly within country 1. However, country 1's ISPs have not managed to successfully extort money from Vimeo. Vimeo videos, even short ones, take hours to load even though there are Vimeo content servers in that country capable of delivering the content very fast.

And then there are people in country 2, whose ISPs have not successfully extorted money from Google and who cannot reliably utilize YouTube at all (they have plenty of speed and bandwidth, but it still takes hours to download a 5-minute clip due to barriers artificially introduced by their ISPs). However, country 2's ISPs have successfully extorted money from Vimeo, and that service is fast as can be for customers in country 2, so everyone in country 2 uses Vimeo. People in country 1 miss out on nearly everything Vimeo has to offer, and people in country 2 miss out on nearly everything YouTube has to offer.

Unless, that is, the customers pay their ISPs an additional amount in order to give them special access to sites that have not yet been extorted by the ISP (a $1 per month "fast youtube" surcharge, for example). No matter which way the cookie crumbles in this non-net-neutral world, the almost always government-subsidized carriers have increased revenues, profits, and control at the expense of their users.

Net neutrality is a good thing. The only exemptions that should be allowed by law are for emergency services, so they can have priority routing and access guarantees. Anything else is anticompetitive propaganda from vested interests that want a way to deliver less services for more money.
posted by Nonce at 9:44 AM on January 6, 2010 [3 favorites]

Theoretically, without net neutrality, companies could control what internet you see.

You have Rogers, and Rogers partners with, say, AT&T, so your inquest into Verizon phone plans always seems to come up empty or redirect to ATT.

Or, your ISP decides that you don't need to see that Dish Network is cheaper, so they block it. Or they decide that instead of ads, you need to see ads, so they redirect those. Your ISP decides Skype competes with its digital phone services, so they either block it or retard its bandwidth to an unusable state.

Really the list goes on---blocking/allowing access based on their commercial interests, not based on what you want to see/do.
posted by TomMelee at 9:54 AM on January 6, 2010

The problem with legally enforced net neutrality is that it could ban various kinds of traffic shaping that would make sense and be useful.

The problem with ignoring net neutrality as something desirable is that it could lead to a balkanized net in which to watch YouTube videos at an acceptable speed, you need AT&T as your ISP, but to watch Hulu you need Verizon, etc., because they've signed deals to throttle (or just disallow) everyone else.

On balance, I find the latter scenario much scarier than the former, but I'm not sure what role legal prohibition should play.
posted by Zed at 10:10 AM on January 6, 2010

I'm a little surprised at how focused the explanations above are on the corporate side of net neutrality. There was a time not long ago when when it was about government intervention, with the corporate side of things as a side product of that. Should goods purchased over the internet be taxed? Should there be laws prohibiting discussing certain topics? Should the internet only be available to certain people? Network neutrality came to mean that government stayed out of the internet. No rules would be based that shaped the internet.

What's being forced now is certain providers want to begin doing the things mentioned by previous posters, such as slowing down access to websites that aren't paying them to allow fast access, or blocking websites entirely. To preserve the freedom the net has enjoyed so far should the government legislate that freedom, or would such an intervention set a precedent further down the line for further legislation regarding the internet? Maybe it's best to let it be?

If you accept that intervention is required (The wild west operated under the bill of rights, even if execution of those rights was a bit dodgy at times) the question then becomes what sort of intervention. Is a law enough? Should it be a constitutional issue? Take, for instance, the issue of broadband access in rural areas. Are people in those areas being left behind because Telcos aren't footing the bill to get them high speed access? Should the government do anything to help them?

It is a massively complex problem, one where simple tinkering could cause significant damage, quickly. Unfortunately there isn't enough push yet for large scale action, such as pushing for a universal right to unrestricted (subject to local laws of course, i.e. child porn, etc.) internet access so we'll almost certainly follow the tinkering path.
posted by jwells at 10:21 AM on January 6, 2010

I love explanations that frame the position of both sides in the most positive light they could imagine.

Great, that's what I was going for. Both sides have genuine merit, which makes it easier.

That said, I should probably add that, at this point, I'm pro-NN. I'll trade off some possibly interesting network solutions for the assurance that my traffic will not be ransomed.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 10:49 AM on January 6, 2010

Jefficator - I love explanations that frame the position of both sides in the most positive light they could imagine.

The non-net neutrality side has certain points about the gains to be had by shaping traffic, but their methods and goals boil down to the destruction of liberty and freedom driven by a profit motive that provides a strong incentive for them to put off expensive upgrades to existing infrastructure as long as possible and collude with content providers to reduce competition and increase rates.

Just because you can state something offensive in an unoffensive manner doesn't mean that characterization is accurate.

Klu Klux Klan: We believe in forging communities wherein everyone feels a strong and essential bond to everyone else in that community. We also believe the meaningful differences between different groups and cultures are important and worth being preserved in the face of globalization.

In a non-net-neutral world, there are different Internets depending on your income, ISP, and location. China's great firewall is benign in comparison to deep packet inspection.

In a net-neutral world, virtually anyone can get on a six-year-old computer at a library and enjoy substantially the same Internet as Bill Gates.
posted by Nonce at 11:06 AM on January 6, 2010

This may not qualify as "concise," but Tim Wu, a law professor of Columbia, is the expert on net neutrality. He wrote a couple of articles on it for Slate.
posted by dhn at 11:15 AM on January 6, 2010

Here's a specific example that might help clarify things.

Today: I go to Hulu and watch an episode of my favorite TV show. Hulu pays (say) $0.50 to their ISP to send the video to me, which comes out of their ad revenue. My ISP pays (say) $0.50 to an Internet backbone provider for me to receive the video, which comes out of the $50 a month I pay them. No money changes hands between my ISP and Hulu: both of them are paying the backbone provider. If Hulu wants to send me video faster, they can pay extra to their ISP. If I want to download video faster, I can pay extra to my ISP.

In a non-net-neutral world: My ISP negotiates directly with various online video sites, and says "Hey, I'll use various tricks to make sure our customers get extra fast access to your site, if you pay me $1 extra per download." Maybe YouTube says yes, so I get really fast downloads from YouTube. Maybe Hulu can't afford this extra charge, their downloads will go a bit slower for me, and I'll consider switching to an ISP with faster access to Hulu.

So far, this isn't a huge deal. In fact, even in today's net-neutral case, some big Web sites will make deals with the biggest ISPs that allow their sites to load really fast ("content distribution networks"), though no money changes hands. This benefits both the consumers and the sites, so no one really complains.

The problem is that in my town, the only ISP is also trying to sell me cable TV! So we could end up with the following:

In an evil non-net-neutral world: My ISP decides they'd rather not have me watching Hulu at all, since it means I'll pay them for less cable TV. So they make Hulu go particularly slow, maybe randomly cutting out video every once in a while. I can't switch to an ISP that lets me watch Hulu in peace, because the cable-ISP company owns all the wires so there's no competition.
posted by miyabo at 11:59 AM on January 6, 2010

It comes down to something called "bit prioritization." All bits are not created equally. Some are more important than others. Different people have different ideas of what "importance" means. It's impossible to shove all bits through the internet at the fastest speed possible so some bits go through faster than others--some bits have a higher "priority" than others. This prioritization happens very quickly and is implemented in software used by the ISP. The question on the matter is "Who decides the priority of these bits?" Net Neutrality seeks to have the government as an arbitrator.

Pro NN: I don't want a company like Comcast to pinch off the bits coming to me from a company or website that for whatever reason they don't like. I'd like the government to step in if that happens. For instance, Comcast may want to make one type of data flow slower to persuade you to dump that service or website and go with a Comcast friendly service or affiliate or partner. In fact, something like that actually happened. That's not fair. Companies will screw the customer like that every time.

Anti-NN: I don't want the government to have even more control over my life. The internet is the last great untamed bastion of freedom of expression. Passing NN will mean the government will have the ability to pinch off data bits they deem less important. This is very troubling because I should determine what's important and what is not wrt the internet not the government. Furthermore, there is no need for NN. If a customer doesn't like the service from their ISP they can change ISPs. The free market will meet the needs of the customer/citizen far better and faster than the government. It's a solution looking for a problem and is just another excuse for government to gain more control over individuals. The government will screw its citizens like that every time.
posted by Lord Fancy Pants at 12:09 PM on January 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

The internet works only because telecom companies agree to receive each other's data via peering and exchange. So lets say one telecom company owns the west coast and another the midwest and another the east cost. They all come up with agreements like "Okay, Im going to send a few billion gigabytes this month your way and I want you to accept all the data and in turn I'll accept yours."

ISPs like your local cable and DSL provider dont have this kind of clout so they buy bandwidth (which is access to these networks) with the money they make from subscribers like you and me.

In the world of telecom an ISP is a small regional entity and internet access really is close to being a commodity good like electricity or natural gas. The ISPs dont like this and realized that there's nothing stopping them from charging more for more popular services and getting on with their own peer agreements.

So Comcast could call Google and say "Yes, I know youre paying for your bandwidth and all and all the telecom companies are peering and we dont really know each other, BUT my users are accessing youtube a lot and unless you pay me Im going to degrade their service or will give priority to your competitors." In the case of Vonage, theyve actually been cut off from ISPs who are trying to sell their own VOIP solution.

Net neutrality is proposed legislation or FCC regulation that will not allow premium internet services. The idea here is that data should be treated equally. Data to google shouldnt cost more than data to yahoo. The main idea here is that your internet pipe should be just that - a pipe to the internet.

The pro-NN crowd wants government intervention because ISPs are usually monopolies or at least duopolies. In many markets people are only served by the big telco DSL service or the big cable service. This means we cant just switch providers, thus no choice means no competition, and no competition means the establishment of an abusive market position.
posted by damn dirty ape at 1:30 PM on January 6, 2010

Net Neutrality has become a term that I loathe, because it has created this shitty false dichotomy that has boiled down into the wrong meme. It tends to get boiled down into "all data is equal" vs "ISP can prioritize the data". I hate this because all data is not equal.
Let me frame it up a different way, let's use roads and the type of traffic allowed on them as the analogy (it's good enough for getting the initial point across). Should everyone have equal access to roads? Hmmmm, yes? Are you sure? So pedestrians, bikes, emergency vehicles, cars, buses, trucks, delivery vans all should vie for the same real estate on an equal footing?
That's a problem with the framing of Net Neutrality generally, and the issue that fails to get much attention in Pro-NN explanations. Now if you have very little traffic on your roads, or your roads are very wide, then maybe you could afford to give everyone equal access to them since there's enough room that there's no contention for the resource the road is providing.
The problem arises when the resource becomes constrained. This isn't an issue now, or even in the near future, for traditional data providers, as there's plenty of ways to make the "roads wider". However, for some access methods (namely wireless), this is a very real problem. The wireless data world is in a bind, and they don't know what to do. They are either facing congestion now, or are very close to it.
Pro-NN legislation in a naive form (i.e., all data must be treated equally, no matter what the application) would have the (hopefully unintended) consequences that wireless data could not be used for mission critical communication services, either business or governmental. Or to put the problem more generally, any data network that has a significant risk of experiencing congestion would not be suitable for providing critical services. Now 911 calls will continue to work, but that's because 911 calls (including any geo-location data that is associated with a 911 call) are handled differently than other data. See what I did there? To be more explicit, cellular voice calls already have discrimination based on the type of service being invoked, in other words, with cellular voice, all calls are not treated equally.
The rallying cry for Net Neutrality shouldn't be "data treated equally regardless of origination", it should be "corporations can't decide unilaterally to implement data shaping policies" or some other pithy saying that would hopefully illuminate the issue better.
Sorry for the length, I have to run now, and don't have time to edit down to be less ranty and more to the point, I just felt that there was a side of Net Neutrality that doesn't get much discussion.
posted by forforf at 3:02 PM on January 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

All the proposals for NN I have seen have reasonable measures for things like priorities and throttling. NN doesnt forbid those, but it does if they are used in a way thats not strictly for maintaining the network, like charging certain companies more for their traffic or blocking competitors. Its a common misconception that NN means you cant put things like VOIP in priority or you cant throttle wireless connections. Its really about maintaining how things were done until fairly recently, before ISPs started ofering their own video and VOIP services and realized they could just degrade their competition to make their product look good.
posted by damn dirty ape at 5:40 AM on January 7, 2010

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