net neutrality – what it is and why it matters

in this post, i will attempt to explain the recent controversy of ‘net neutrality’ and why it matters. i’ll be employing an analogy to make things simpler for those without a strong technical background.

think of the internet like a road system. when you ask your computer to take you to facebook, imagine the computer giving a letter with instructions to a messenger on a bicycle.  if you are a fan of greek mythology,  you could imagine this messenger wearing winged sandals.  this messenger  pedals his way along your neighborhood roads, to get to your internet service provider, or ISP.  a computer at the ISP dumps this letter into a truck, which drives across some highways until it gets to facebook’s headquarters. a computer at facebook reads the letter, writes a response, and puts it on an outbound truck.  this outbound truck takes the highways back to your ISP. at the ISP, the response from facebook is given to another bike messenger, who rides back along the neighborhood roads until she gets to your house and gives your computer the letter. your computer opens the letter, which contains status updates and pictures of your nephews with their faces covered in chocolate.  yummy.

net neutrality is not concerned with the freeways that these trucks drive on, which are huge, and mostly empty.   there are many different freeways owned by various companies, and these companies charge facebook and other sites (youtube, netflix) to deliver their letters by the truckload. these big websites pay a  lot of money for a freeway exit straight to their loading docks, so they can receive and process letters as fast as possible.

net neutrality deals with the roads from  the neighborhood streets that the bike messengers ride, which  on are not nearly as big, and packed full of bicyclists. unlike the freeways, each neighborhood usually has one set of roads owned by a single ISP,  two at most.  often these monopolies are protected by law.  it’s very expensive to build a street that connects to each house, and it’s difficult to maintain these streets. years ago, many ISP’s made deals with local governments, offering to build local neighborhood streets – which was expensive and costly – in exchange for the local government preventing anyone else from building streets in the same neighborhood.   note that many of the ISPS own both highways as well as local roads, but there are some companies that only offer local road service.

the net neutrality laws – which have just been struck down – said that the owners of the local roads were not allowed to give priority to some letters over others. every letter – no matter which company sent it, which truck it came from, which highway it arrived on, or which house it was going to – had to be treated equally.  the owners of the local roads have argued they should be allowed to charge more for bike messengers carrying traffic from the biggest companies, in order to help reduce the congestion on the local roads. the fcc had said ‘no’ to this in the past, but has recently reversed course and said ‘yes’.  this is a terrible idea.

if we had no net neutrality in 1998, google would not exist. yahoo would be able to pay the ISP’s to deliver its traffic faster than google’s, and without anywhere near as much money, google would load so slowly that no one would want to use it.  the biggest players would run the market, and nobody else would be able to start a new company.  many people have written about how hard this would make it to start a new company.

the rules that were stuck down recently were removed by a fcc chairman tom wheeler, who was a lobbyist for cell phone and cable companies before becoming chairman of the fcc. it’s no surprise that a man charged with regulating an industry he once represented would choose rules that benefit the big companies in those industries, rather than consumers. it isn’t as if this guy is a lone bad actor – all of washington dc suffers the same problem.

the correct solution to the problem of congestion is to remove the monopoly protection given to local ISP’s. these agreements were struck years ago, and they are completely unamerican. when companies have to compete with each other to provide the best service at the lowest price, everyone wins. when companies have no competition, they have no reason to improve their services. they are the only game in town – and i find monopoly to be much more boring than settlers of catan.

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