What Is Net Neutrality, And How Does It Affect Me?

This past week everyone’s media feed has been filled with discussions of Net Neutrality. However, there remains a lot of confusion – and deliberate misinformation – as to what Net Neutrality actually is.

At its core, Net Neutrality is the idea that your ISP cannot judge, weigh, or modify different packets of data differently. It cannot prioritize one packet over another for whatever reason. This is how the internet works at its core. With imposing Net Neutrality, all the government would be doing is prohibiting the installation of pipeline monitoring and adjustment technologies which analyze the data for priority.

That’s it.

By prohibiting these technologies at the ISP level, they are prevented from prioritizing content from one set of providers, or reducing from another – not because it is illegal to, but because they simply would have no capability to do so.

This also prevents the ISP from more aggressive tricks, such as requiring the use of their own custom domain services which have removed competitors addresses and redirected it to their own. Imagine a company owned by Rupert Murdoch a moment. That company’s domain name servers redirects, say, addictinginfo.org to theblaze.com, effectively eliminating their customers access to the website and instead funneling them to sites of their choice. And if you don’t use their domain services, you find yourself cut off from the internet. With Net Neutrality, the ISP could not monitor the particulars of any data packet, which means they could not know which domain name service you are using. This prevents them from penalizing you for not using theirs.

This form of monitoring can also peer into one’s home as well, to discover what kind of devices you are running. Say your ISP is getting paid to make sure that all of their clients are running Windows 8. Using monitoring tools, they could look for the telltale signatures of not only Windows 8 machines, but of any others. Using that, they could identify that one household is not running Windows 8 at all, say they run Apple products. They could do things like slow down their speed, block their devices from updating, or even push advertising onto them through website redirects. In extreme cases, they could even send technicians in, and rip out the households modems, while still charging them for the service, claiming the use of unapproved devices is a violation of the terms of service. This has happened before, and it will happen again without Net Neutrality.

Now this also helps out the ISP’s as well. Many companies try to push their own protocols over the internet, from Skype calls to Netflix movies, these services use proprietary technologies to deliver their services. Right now, these companies rely upon the ISP’s to determine the best ways in which to handle the traffic that these services run, expecting them to monitor and modify their traffic accordingly. This can make for a more complex job for these ISP’s – after all there are thousands of such companies all with their own unique technologies. With Net Neutrality, the ISP’s are no longer responsible for handling these protocols demands, they only consider them as equals with your typical web page or email. This then forces the companies which make these pieces of technology handle their own demands, relieving the ISP’s of considerable headaches.

Now, this is not to say that monitoring cannot happen. But it cannot be done, the technology even installed, by the ISP itself. It limits this technologies to entities with broader public security needs, like the government itself or private investigators, which have broad oversight over their activities and a system of checks and balances to avoid abuse (In theory anyways, we all know that this system needs improvement) – or to the personal use of such technology, like a parent using it to monitor their child’s activity while surfing the internet. It also has no effect on intranet monitoring, for say a businesses private network – making sure that their workers are focusing on production and not watching My Little Pony videos instead.

People against Net Neutrality are in effect arguing for the ISP’s right to tell you, as their customer, what you are and are not able to do with your personal choices. Recall the fiasco when Comcast tried to block all peer-to-peer protocols, resulting in World of Warcraft updates being blocked. ISP’s, by their position as a service provider, cannot keep up with technologies as they progress so rapidly. The nature of their business is for stability, not for innovation. That is why Net Neutrality makes the most sense – it keeps the ISP’s focused on the task that they are good at.