What is Net Neutrality?

Wow, it's been a while since I wrote anything here. I hadn't forgotten, just really not had much to say... better a few quality posts than a lot of boring ones. That said, I'll try to post more than once every three months at least...

There's been a lot of buzz about how we should be fighting to save Net Neutrality and the free, open Internet, but little explanation of what that actually means. Here's my attempt at a hopefully simple explanation:

As it is now, you pay an ISP for a connection to the Internet. What you do with that connection is entirely up to you. Whether you watch streaming video all day or just read your emails once or twice a week; whether you look at porn or use it strictly for business matters; whether you play games or just read the news, an Internet connection is an Internet connection, and you're free to do all of those things with it.

To summarize, Net Neutrality is a set of laws that ensure:
  • Any Internet connection lets you access anything on the Internet.

  • All traffic is treated equally, regardless of source and destination.

  • Anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can host their own website or web service and publish whatever they like.

  • Your connection is not censored - you're free to look at whatever you like and say whatever you like. You can look at porn and talk about how you hate the government to your heart's content.

ISPs want to get rid of these pesky laws to make some easy cash. Without these laws, they can - and will - charge you for access to specific services, and also charge those services for traffic priority.

What this means for consumers is basically just the Internet becoming cable TV. Pay more than you are now for less than you have now, buying "packages" each with one site you use and 50 you don't.

What it means for publishers and businesses is significantly more devastating. Right now, anyone can start up a website and anyone can see it - a level playing field. Under this new system, you'd have to pay each ISP for them to add your site to some of their packages so people can access it. Basically small businesses would have to pay a ton of money to have any chance to compete - and you with your little personal website? Forget it! If you wanted to host a blog, you'd have no choice but to use an existing blogging service - where you can't ensure that your publications, unaltered, are reaching anyone at all. So much for that freedom of the press thing.

(Yes, I am aware of the irony in that this is posted on Blogspot. At least right now if I suspected they were censoring me, I could switch to hosting it myself. That would no longer be possible under the new system.)

Then on top of paying for people to be able to access it, they'd be able to implement traffic priority. Pay $xx/month and traffic to and from your site is given higher priority, making it load faster and drop less frequently. Of course, bandwidth is a limited resource, so this basically means everything else loads slower and drops more frequently. That's another fee your business would have to pay to remain competitive. What's great about this is when multiple competing businesses each pay for priority, they essentially neutralize the effects, bringing them back to a level playing field (among eachother, at least) - paying extra for what we already have now.

On top of all that, they'd be allowed to censor the web. If Big ISP Co. doesn't like what you're saying on your blog, or the fact that your service competes with one of theirs, they can just block all access to it. This would effectively fragment the network - certain websites would only be available from certain ISPs.
(Some countries are already doing this; generally dictatorships censoring those who speak against the government and things they don't want people to know, but also increasingly trying to block all access to pornography.)

Oh, and how exactly can they charge or block on a per-service basis? Well, they'd have to look at your traffic to see what you're accessing. That means they have to be able to read it - which means it can't be encrypted. So look forward to paying extra for any kind of secure communications. Privacy? What's that?

So, now that we know why we should fight for Net Neutrality, the next question is how? There are a few things you can do:

1) Complain loudly to anyone opposing it. Write to congress, switch ISPs, spread the word.

2) Move to decentralized systems such as Freenet which can't easily be censored, taken down or blocked. In these systems, content is hosted in thousands of caches around the world and it's impossible to tell whether you're accessing a file yourself or it's just passing by - nor what's in it if you aren't the one accessing it - so censorship becomes quite difficult.
Tor is another popular system; it provides anonymous access to the web, whereas Freenet is essentially a separate web entirely. Both use heavily encrypted traffic.

3) In the meantime, encrypt as much of your traffic as you can, while you still have that option. There's no telling if some ISPs aren't already (illegally) throttling access to competitors' services and censoring pages - encrypting your traffic prevents that, for the time being.

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