The best way to explain what net neutrality is is to explain what we'd have without it. Right now, the Internet is the ultimate level playing field for competition. Anyone can start up a website and do business, and the competition is (mostly) fair no matter who else is involved. Those who attack net neutrality want to change that.
Their immediate goal is being able to buy priority. As it is, information travels the web in a first-come, first-serve system. Routers deliver every packet as fast as they can. What these companies want to do is be able to pay to have their packets given more bandwidth, jump to the front of the queue, and so forth so their sites will load faster than their competition's.
You can probably see a number of problems with this already. Say you start up a business that stands a chance of competing with Youtube. Right now, all you have to do is convince people to use your site instead of the other video sharing sites, and you're winning. In a priority-based system, Google can afford to boost the priority of their packets, which means Youtube gets faster and faster while your site feels like dialup - bandwidth is a limited resource, after all, so one site having priority means others being slowed down.
The "Trojan horse" aspect comes from an interesting twist: they want to apply this to wireless Internet, while keeping wired neutral, likely in an effort to get people to think it's not so bad, won't affect them, etc. Of course, wireless is the future, and mobile Internet already sucks enough without this sort of nonsense. There's no reason they should be treated differently.
Eliminating net neutrality will serve to keep the rich rich while allowing them to crush any smaller competitors by effectively throttling them down to lower and lower speeds.
It gets worse, of course. Allowing packets to be treated differently depending on their origin does more than allow big companies to stifle their competition. Think of what ISPs will do with this. Basically, it'll turn the Internet into cable TV.
Right now, you pay your ISP to route packets to and from your computer, regardless of what those packets contain. Ending net neutrality means they'll be allowed to treat packets differently depending on the information inside.
Now, think about this. The information inside any packet includes whom it came from and where it's going. In the case of web page requests, it includes what page is being requested. "Treating the packet differently" can mean anything - including throttling it or discarding it entirely. That means ISPs will be free to, say, block any requests to a certain site.
Censorship is already a bad thing, but it's still not cable TV. Think greedier. Think about the sales pitches. Instead of blacklisting, we'd have whitelisting. Want to use Google's various services? That's 10 bucks a month. Access to video sites such as Youtube, Hulu and Vimeo is another 20. For 5 you can write your own blog. Just want to read the news every morning? Well, you might get the media package - that's 37 news sites you've never heard of, a couple game sites, some movie review sites, and a tech help site, all for only $35/month. The deluxe package at $45 also adds a couple Internet radio stations.
Sound ridiculous? It's all possible right now - the only thing stopping it is that net neutrality makes it illegal. For that matter, some countries - China and Australia are notable examples - already have similar systems in place, for the purpose of censorship. China's is a full-on Orwell-style system that censors information about the government, rebellion, etc. Australia's blocks "porn" (using a very loose definition) and "illegal files". The only difference between censoring the Internet and charging for access on a per-site basis is in how the software decides what to block.
So, what can you do about this?
The first step, obviously, is to raise hell. Write to congress and the companies involved and tell them where they can stick this idea. Post and spread the word. People need to know - if nobody knows about it, nobody will challenge it, and if nobody challenges it, nothing's going to stop it.
Then, join Freenet - a completely decentralized, encrypted, anonymous network. Essentially, it's a giant distributed file storage - every user contributes some storage space, and relays requests and data around to their destinations.
Freenet differs from traditional peer-to-peer services and the world-wide web in several ways:
- Everything is encrypted. A file's identifier includes its encryption key. It's encrypted when it goes in and decrypted when it comes out. Those storing the file and those passing it along can't see what's inside. Freenet has a strong focus on anonymity and encryption.
- When a file is inserted, it's spread to a number of users, who then host parts of it. It's therefore not necessary for the original inserter to remain online after inserting it.
- There are no direct connections. You ask someone if they have the information you want. If they don't, they ask someone else for it. They might also keep a copy as they pass it on. So there's no way to tell if someone is downloading a file or just passing it along.
- Its distributed nature makes censorship essentially impossible. The only way to remove a file is for everyone to stop downloading it until it gets dropped from users' storage to make room for more popular files. The more people download something, the more available it is.
- It's browser-based and can support static websites ("freesites") and email. Support for IRC is under development as well.
What makes Freenet especially relevant to this post is that the encryption, decentralization, and chaining make it impossible for an observer - such as an ISP - to tell just what you're accessing, which means they can't treat the packets differently depending on their content. Neutrality is the only option.
Aside from that, as I always say, encrypt everything. Use HTTPS and SSL whenever possible, encrypt your hard drives, and use strong passwords. These things take minimal effort and will not only help to preserve neutrality (they can't filter packets they can't read), but also to keep you safe.
(Yes, I'm aware of the irony of posting this on Blogger.)
On an unrelated note, it looks like a recent NoScript update broke my status widget after all the screwing around I did to get it working. Go figure.