If you’re like me, to say that you spend a significant amount of time on the Internet is a severe understatement. I spend a lot of time surfing the web, downloading movies and music (legally, of course) and playing a lot of games. As it is, my family’s Internet bill is rather substantial, especially with the monthly and annual fees for services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Xbox Live and Playstation Plus.
Based on recent court rulings and statements from Internet service providers (ISPs), that bill is more than likely going to get much more expensive in the near future, due in part to the death of what is referred to as “net neutrality.”
What is net neutrality? Despite the upbringing of a father who works at IBM and a brother who’s studying computer science, even I get pretty confused about what it is from time to time.
Basically, it’s a question of whether access to the Internet should be gated behind packages much like those found in cable subscriptions. Right now, as of this moment, this isn’t a problem. As long as you pay your regular Internet bill, you get the same degree of speed and performance as anyone else with a plan through your ISP. The actual speed of the connection depends on the size of the ISP and the availability of bandwidth in a given area, but the strength and performance of the connection ideally remains the same between all users.
Now imagine a scenario in which you pay your regular Internet bill only to find that your access to some websites is significantly slower. Let’s imagine, for example, that Verizon has made a deal with Google, and that the terms of that deal allow subscribers lightning-fast access to Google sites — access that would be hindered for Comcast users. And let’s continue this hypothetical nightmare by proposing that, per the agreement, other ISPs would have to pay a fee to receive a similar degree of speed as Verizon users. Comcast, devils of cable subscriptions that they are, have no choice but to pay the fee, raising their Internet access bills in the process and possibly even locking superior Internet access behind a higher subscription tier.
But what about those sites that can’t afford to pay the fee? Tough luck, Verizon and Google would say. Pay up or shut up. This would ultimately lead to some sites essentially being censored because they aren’t willing to pay and access to their sites is being throttled as a result. After all, there are few things as annoying as a web page that won’t load quickly, so users would be less inclined to go to those sites.
This is, in a nutshell, one of the many scenarios that net neutrality protects against. The FCC issued an order to ISPs in 2010 to abide by the principle of net neutrality, but the order was thrown out in January. Although the ruling is currently in the appeal process, companies are already preparing for a world without net neutrality. The CEO of Verizon issued a statement in an investor’s meeting that spoke of forcing higher rates on what he considered “heavy users” of the Internet — perhaps through a fee similar to a mobile data plan.
I’m almost certain I’d fit his definition of “heavy user,” and not just because of all the web browsing I do. As a video game enthusiast, my ability to play multiplayer games would be severely hampered with the kind of performance drop implied by that kind of fee, not to mention the advantage that other players who paid for the higher membership tier would have over me.
And then there’s downloading and streaming both games and movies. The average Xbox 360 game clocks in at around six to eight gigabytes, with PS4 and Xbox One games taking up as much as four times that amount. Depending on video quality, the average Netflix stream eats up anywhere from 300 megabytes to 2.8 gigabytes per hour. All of that is on top of the fees associated with all of these services.
The Internet is one of the last remaining bastions of uncensored information and communication. Net neutrality keeps corporate culture from getting their grubby little fingers on it and ruining it the way they’ve ruined other forms of media. The death of it and the addition of tiered Internet access could potentially ruin the freedom of information that the Internet provides.