Over the past few months you have likely overheard the phrase “Net Neutrality,” but may not have a clear idea of what it is, why people are talking about it, and why you should care. Simply put, net neutrality is the idea that all data on the internet is equal; when you open any two websites side-by-side, they will load at the same speed, regardless of who owns them.
Currently, the internet is an information super-highway and there is only one lane. A video on huffpost.com will load just as quickly as one on CNN.com, and nobody outside of The Huffington Post or CNN can change how quickly videos load on their respective websites. This ensures internet service providers (ISPs), such as Comcast, Time Warner, or Verizon, cannot charge huffpost.com to maintain equal-footing with CNN.com, or vice versa. Net Neutrality is vital to a vibrant and operational internet that fosters innovation—an internet which, unless the FCC changes its current course, looks to be a thing of the past.
The FCC, headed by Chairman Tom Wheeler, recently caused a bit of a shit storm in the online community by proposing a new set of rules which opens the door for massive changes to the internet, most of which have the potential to do far more harm than good. The heart of his proposal grants ISPs the ability to charge websites additional fees for access to an internet fast lane. Key to what makes today’s internet so functional is bandwidth—more bandwidth equals more speed. In the current system every site has equal access to bandwidth; every site loads at the same speed and is part of the same internet. And while Mr. Wheeler’s assertion that his proposal will maintain “one internet,” and not create “a fast [Internet] or a slow Internet,” might be accurate, it will certainly create a “faster” internet and a “slower” internet. For an internet “fast-lane” to work at even faster speeds, it needs more bandwidth, of which there is a limited supply. This extra bandwidth must be taken from the “regular” internet, making “regular” websites considerably slower.
The ability to create “fast lanes” gives cable companies that also provide internet service an unfair advantage over businesses that offer internet-based video content, such as Netflix and Amazon Prime (however, not Hulu, which has the luxury of being owned by NBC, whose parent company is—you guessed it—Comcast). Rather than offering more competitive prices or improving customer service to better compete with streaming content providers, the Comcasts of world aim to get a leg up on their web-based rivals by either limiting the bandwidth available or charging them extra for access to the “fast lane,” and in doing so, pocket a portion of their competitor’s profits. In either case, consumers suffer.
If Comcast shrinks the data stream for Netflix to the point where it is essentially unwatchable, consumers are forced to either deal with a substandard Netflix or rely solely on Comcast to watch their favorite movies and TV shows at nearly $70 per month. In this scenario, Comcast has no incentive to lower its monthly fees or to improve customer service, as it has severely hindered its online rivals by forcing them to sell an inferior product.
If the FCC gives Comcast the ability to charge its web-based competition for the privilege of using a “fast lane,” the extra fees paid by a Netflix or an Amazon Prime will be passed down to the consumer, as their subscription costs will rise significantly. In this scenario, Comcast (or Time Warner or the proposed TimeWarnerCast behemoth) has little motivation to lower prices, as their chief competitors’ monthly fees will have conveniently spiked.
The same logic applies to other online services that offer more affordable rates—Skype and Google Voice are good examples—and happen to be in direct competition with Verizon or Comcast’s TV/Internet/Telephone monstrosity of a monopoly (Monstropoly?).
In neither of these circumstances does the customer benefit, nor is Comcast compelled to improve its product, customer service, or offer more competitive rates. More troubling is potential start-ups would be handicapped from the outset, unable to pay for access to “fast lanes” without significant financial backing. In this potential future the creation of currently unthought-of groundbreaking and innovative products—Facebooks, Instagrams, or Youtubes—becomes increasingly difficult and exceedingly improbable.
Each of these scenarios is quite likely if the FCC’s proposal passes. And unless something drastic happens in the very near future, Mr. Wheeler’s proposal will pass.
If any of this makes you mad: good. You should be upset.
Because you probably will soon be paying a lot more for a lot less.
Because before being appointed as FCC chairman, Tom Wheeler worked as a top lobbyist for cable and wireless companies.
Because, if you’re like most people, you found out about this issue on an HBO comedy show instead of the CNNs of the world.
Fortunately, America remains a democracy, and you can effect change (or in this case, prevent it). Despite the efforts of the two headed monster that is Comcast’s deceptive advertising campaign and its insanely powerful lobbying arm, your voice still matters.
We are in the midst of a 120-day period where the FCC is seeking public comment on this issue, before it decides whether to cement Mr. Wheeler’s proposal. If any of this seems unfair, dishonest, or unbelievably frustrating, please use the tools at your disposal to stop this nonsense.
Go to either fcc.gov/comments or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and request that Mr. Wheeler and the FCC reject their new proposal, classify the internet as a “Title II Common Carrier,” maintain an open internet, and keep the internet as we know it alive and well.
 Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
In early May Comcast/Time Warner had the chutzpah to take out a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal (above), bragging about their support for an open internet, while simultaneously defending their impending merger with Time Warner. (http://www.dslreports.com/shownews/Full-Page-Comcast-Ad-Tries-to-Sell-Public-on-Time-Warner-Deal-128934)
 Comcast spent over $18 million buying political influence in the last year alone, second only to defense contractor Northrop Grumman.