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Evan Horowitz

What is net neutrality all about?

“Net neutrality” is about what kind of lines we should have on the Internet.AFP/Getty Images/File/AFP

Waiting in line can feel like a sacred responsibility, with each line member poised to prevent cutting and ensure fairness. Other times, cutting is just part of the game, like when you’re at the airport and have to wait for every platinum, gold, and silver club member to board before taking your seat.

“Net neutrality” is about what kind of lines we should have on the Internet. Supporters of net neutrality think all online information should be treated equally — no cutting. Opponents argue that fast lanes and priority access would actually make the Internet better.

What is the argument for net neutrality?

It’s not just about fairness. Imagine a world where big companies like Netflix and Google pay extra money to cut lines and give their users faster service. How could a plucky upstart search engine or the next video streaming service hope to compete? To provide the same speed, they’d have to pay too. But being young and small they might not have the resources.

Net neutrality puts all Internet companies on the same footing, and in that way it helps support innovation and promote entrepreneurship.


What’s the argument against it?

There’s a reason people can cut at the airport: Frequent flyers are happy to pay for the privilege, and the airlines are just as happy to take their money. Were Congress to suddenly pass an “airport neutrality” rule requiring all passengers to be treated equally, that additional revenue would disappear, leaving the airlines with less money to invest in things like new planes and employee salaries.

The Internet has its own frequent flyers (Netflix and YouTube account for half of all Internet traffic). If service providers like Comcast and Time Warner were allowed to offer premium service at a premium price, the additional revenue could be used to upgrade equipment, expand broadband access, and improve Internet performance for everyone.


Is net neutrality a law?

Not anymore. At first, net neutrality was an unofficial but widely accepted standard. It became official in 2010, when the Federal Communications Commission, or FCC, passed a rule making it illegal for Internet service providers to block traffic or offer preferential treatment.

Last January, however, that rule was struck down by a federal court, setting off a furious new debate and spurring the FCC to search for a new approach.

As part of that effort, the FCC asked the public to weigh in, and it has since received more than 3 million public comments, a new record.

What happens next?

Currently, the FCC is poring over those public comments and working toward a new rule, although it’s still unclear when that rule will be announced or how strong it will be. To date, they’ve shared two proposals.

The first would allow ISPs to create Internet fast lanes if they are “commercially reasonable” — a loophole that brought swift condemnation from net neutrality supporters.

The second approach would give the FCC broad new authority to enforce net neutrality and regulate the behavior of Internet service providers. Those service providers would have to be reclassified as if they were phone companies, subjecting them to a set of rules designed for a very different industry.

Does any of this apply to smart phones?

Actually, no. Companies who provide Internet access for cellphones have been largely exempt from net neutrality rules. However, with more people now relying on their smart phones for Internet access, there’s talk of bringing net neutrality to that world as well.


Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the United States. He can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz