Today, thousands of websites around the world – ranging from those belonging to big firms like Netflix to small nonprofits like NPI – are overlaying symbolic spinning wheels of death on top of their content to raise awareness of the need for net neutrality, the principle that all traffic on the Internet should be treated fairly and equally. It’s part of a joint action nicknamed Internet Slowdown Day.
Why are we doing this and why is net neutrality so important? Well, without net neutrality, companies like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon would have the power to decide what traffic could have priority. They could set up express lanes on the Internet for delivery of content and charge for speedy access, for instance.
To understand what they have in mind and why it would be so harmful, consider how cable television works now. There’s all these tiers: Companies like Comcast decide what goes into each package they want to sell. They pick the channels and set the prices. It’s take it or leave it. Typically, three or four packages are offered (basic, expanded, and premium… or in Comcast parlance, Starter, Preferred, and Premier). Each package costs more and includes access to extra channels.
To show customers on the lower tiers what they’re missing out on, cable and satellite companies even make sure that their on-screen channel guides contain a complete listing of all the channels they carry. When switching to a channel that is not included in the package (for instance, HBO or Showtime), a message is displayed prompting the user to call in to upgrade if they would like to get the channel.
Comcast and its fellow cable giants want to be able to create tiers on the Internet, too, but differentiated by speed and reliability, as opposed to access.
It is unlikely we would see a censorship regime (there would be a huge outcry if the likes of Comcast tried to charge everybody a toll or fee to put traffic through), but we could see traffic to certain websites being given preferential treatment.
That would create a very dangerous, problematic precedent, because the Internet has been operating under the principle of net neutrality since its inception. Net neutrality is what makes the Internet so open and democratic.
If companies like Comcast could legally practice discrimination, as they want to do, it’d still be possible to get to NPI’s website, but it might not load as fast as the websites of Google, Amazon, Microsoft, or Apple, who have deep pockets and could presumably afford to pay for inclusion in the uppermost tier.
The debate over net neutrality goes far beyond best practices for network management, though. Tim Wu, who coined the phase net neutrality, explains:
Most people have a rough sense that net neutrality is about the rules for Internet traffic; but the precise debates about regulatory authority and the rules themselves are abstruse.
Net neutrality has seized the moment because it is standing in for a national conversation about deeper values.
It is, among other things, a debate about opportunity—or more precisely, the Internet as another name for it.
The Web’s famous openness to anyone with vision, persistence, and minimal cash recalls the geographic frontiers of earlier America and the technological frontiers of the twentieth century, as in industries like radio and early computing. As such, the mythology of the Internet is not dissimilar to that of America, or any open country—as a place where anyone with passion or foolish optimism might speak his or her piece or open a business and see what happens.
No success is guaranteed, but anyone gets to take a shot. That’s what free speech and a free market look like in practice rather than in theory.
There’s a lot at stake here. The Internet has served as a launching pad for thousands of ventures, from commercial to philanthropic to political, like NPI. Some, like Google and Amazon, have become Fortune 500 companies. The Internet is incredibly democratic; it was designed to foster two-way communication. It is vital that the principles on which the Internet was founded and continue to operate be enshrined into law, so that it remains democratic, open, and free.
We invite you to join us in standing up for the Internet today. Send an email, write a letter, or make a call to your U.S. representative and your U.S. senators, as well as the Federal Communications Commission. Add your voice to all the others calling for net neutrality. Together, we can beat the cable companies and their armies of lobbyists, and ensure the Internet is defended.