Monday, June 9, 2014

What to watch: the impact of net neutrality

The dance about net neutrality has barely begun. And it's going to affect what crawls across your computer. Unless you start asking questions.

By NASA [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
First, Common Cause says this about net neutrality: "network neutrality is the principle that Internet users should be able to access any web content they choose and use any applications they choose, without restrictions or limitations imposed by their internet service provider." You can learn more at

What this means: think of the internet as a collection of pipelines through which media content flows. Verizon, Comcast, or Time Warner are some major owners of those pipes. They can "throttle" downloads of content providers like Netflix if they don't pay for increased bandwidth. Or, you might see Walmart's online shopping pages load more quickly than Amazon's, if Walmart buys preferential pipeline service.

Companies that control the "pipes" through which content passes have control if the FCC doesn't enforce (or walks away from) net neutrality. Congress' current efforts to update the 1996 Telecommunications Act could allow pipeline operators to charge those providers for preferential bandwidth.

The provider-vs.-pipeline bashing has already begun. Last week, Netflix dinged Verizon for allegedly slower downloads. 

Verizon cried foul. But preferential delivery of content has existed for years. Anyone who's used Facebook knows they see some friends' updates more often than others. There's a reason Facebook keeps defaulting to an absurd "Top Stories" ranking of content, rather than the latest updates most individual users prefer.

Content skirmishes are going to continue: Amazon's current tussle with Hanchette publishing. YouTube content that's mysteriously unplayable on some devices. (Remember, Google owns YouTube, and has a content library called Google Play that requires more pipeline.) So some content is already excluded, even if you know it exists. And Hulu (owned by 21st Century Fox, the Walt Disney Company, and NBC Universal) and Amazon's Instant Video also need space in those pipelines.

For my profession: a collapse of net neutrality might hamper the ability of advertisers and public relations people to promote clients' products online or via digital video, which eats bandwidth. But more is at stake.

I sometimes write about diversity. It's important to remember that the internet is about diversity of ideas and content. I do not care at all for Iggy Azalea (warning: explicit content, NSFW*) or cat videos. But you might, and you shouldn't be prevented from viewing them.

Any effort to restrict or limit diversity of content can be devastating to how we, as U.S. citizens, use -- or lose -- these channels to share information.

I'm asking my Congressional representative what she's doing about net neutrality. And I hope you'll do the same.

*Not Safe For Work