So lately we’ve seen some right-wing politicians in the USA come out swinging against the idea of Net Neutrality. The current favoured talking point about why they’re doing this is that Net Neutrality is a form of price control. For those who aren’t aware, the internet has informally functioned on a system described as “Net Neutrality” for most of its lifetime- until recently. It’s the principle that internet traffic should work like phone calls. That is, barring certain exceptions for law enforcement reasons, all traffic should be forwarded to its destination without interference or delay.
The argument that Net Neutrality is a price control relies on people not understanding how the internet works in order to be persuasive. They argue, look, you pay your Internet Service Provider to deliver you content. Why shouldn’t the content provider have to pay for this? They’re getting content delivered to you for free.
Only someone who has never had to deal with the realities of hosting a website would say this. Everyone who puts up a website pays hosting fees either directly or indirectly. If you have your own server in your home, you pay your ISP for the ability to upload certain amounts of bandwidth. For small websites that probably works fine. You might instead pay a specialised hosting company to perform this service for you as well, in which case, they manage the server. You also pay a fee to have a human-readable address (like “google.com”) to the Domain Name Registry Service.
Sites like WordPress.com that offer “free” hosting services for certain types of content manage these fees for you and gamble that they can make money off advertising on your pages. Ending Net Neutrality would essentially open anyone hosting content to blackmail from large ISPs. They could block access to services that compete with them or their parent company, (so you wouldn’t be able to use the internet to move your service to a new ISP, for instance, or if your ISP owns a video streaming service, they might block or dramatically slow down competing services to the point they don’t function) and they could slow down sites hosted by large content providers if they refuse to pay for so-called “fastlane service” in order to extract extra fees. (in reality, they would be paying to get out of a slow lane that had been newly invented, as currently all “lanes” travel at the same speed)
This won’t just affect customers of one ISP, either. Internet traffic uses a system called “routing” that has regional servers direct your traffic. You’re often passing through six or ten intermediary servers when you request internet content. If just one of those intermediary servers slows or blocks content, it effects the whole route. Other ISPs who don’t support this sort of behaviour would need to develop systems to skip biased parts of the internet that don’t forward traffic on a neutral basis.
It’s as if someone actually had the power to mark a speed limit on a section of the ocean, or actually block it off altogether. The way ships are navigated would have to change.
The other argument used by opponents of Net Neutrality is, as I’ve alluded above, that the ability to prioritize certain types of traffic allows them to offer better service- that is, they can fast-lane the things that are important to their customers.
This is a better argument, but it’s still wrong. If prioritising internet traffic is helpful, (and I can see why it would be) a better way to handle it would be to allow software developers to opt in to having certain internet traffic handled slowly. This would allow things like periodic e-mail checks to be deprioritised, (because do you really need to know the instant you receive a new email?) but manual e-mail checks to go through at a full speed that might be slightly faster, and it would also let developers expose options to have all internet traffic sent at full priority.
That puts whether your traffic is handled as a priority in your hands, and the hands of people who actually design software, and whose job it is to know when an internet request needs to be fast or slow. Centralising the priority of internet traffic with ISPs leads to situations like torrent throttling, which slows down things like peer-to-peer video game updating in order to also discourage pirating of TV and blu-ray content, or at worst political censorship by ISPs or simple anti-competitive behaviour like mentioned above.
The worst thing is that if this happens in the USA, it sabotages the Internet for everyone else as well, given the large amount of traffic routed through the USA. It would pose big routing issues for any New Zealand or Australia-based ISPs wanting to avoid slow service. All internet users should be crossing our fingers that a Democrat (most likely either Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton) ends up winning the USA’s next presidential election, otherwise this is going to be a problem we have to deal with.