Right, let’s start at the basics. Put simply: Broadband is high speed Internet access. It’s much faster than dial-up, sometimes cheaper and more reliable than satellite, and far more comprehensive than wireless connections.
So what’s “net neutrality”?
Net neutrality is the principle that users should have unrestricted access to the Internet, without interference from service providers. Though it’s often framed as a new debate, the principles of net neutrality—also called open Internet—have existed informally for about as along as the Internet’s been around. It means that your Internet service provider (ISP) doesn’t distinguish between, say, CNN, ColorLines, or someone’s personal blog. You can access each site at the same speed without interference from your ISP. So those same ISP’s, like Time Warner or AT&T, don’t charge users more to connect faster to certain sites or block them from going onto others; every site is, in effect, treated the same.
The current debate is merely a matter of formalizing these principles by imposing regulations that say service providers must continue to treat everything on the Internet equally. That means that Verizon, for instance, couldn’t go and block its users from going to sites it didn’t like, or slow users’ connectivity to sites that don’t drive revenue.
Got that? Good, because now it gets a bit complicated. Industry, government, advocates and even courts are in a heated battle over who exactly gets to set the ground rules for the Internet.
And what’s the fight about?
The fight started because those scary scenarios about blocking and slowing traffic aren’t merely speculative. In 2005, Comcast blocked its users from sharing BitTorrents, which are popular ways to send and receive large files. The company claimed that it was preventing its users from committing copyright infringement, since the file-sharing platforms are often associated with quick and easy ways to get free music and movies.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) stepped in and ruled that no Internet service provider could block or interfere with user traffic—unless it was for “reasonable network management purposes.” Comcast challenged the ruling and this year a federal court overturned it, finding that the FCC didn’t have the authority to regulate broadband in the first place.
The court ruling has added yet another layer to the debate. The FCC is scrambling to regain its regulatory authority. That authority actually began eroding years ago, when a conservative majority of commissioners ruled that broadband be treated differently from landline phone and TV services, which are seen as essential to every household and therefore subject to federal oversight.
Meanwhile, service providers have argued vehemently against net neutrality regulations, saying that any formal rules would stifle competition and innovation—which would in turn keep prices up and limit broadband expansion into poor and rural communities.
On the other hand, some consumer and civil rights advocates have argued the exact opposite: that the principle of having an open Internet is at the heart of innovation to begin with. And, further, that the claim that regulation will stifle competition is baseless—especially considering that there are only a handful of service providers left to make the decisions in the first place and, for them, it’s a matter of will. Not opportunity.
But why should people of color care?
The Internet’s become an essential part of everyday life. Increasingly, crucial parts of society are moving online, including everything from scholarship and college applications to social security forms. But the Internet’s also allowed folks of color to engage with democracy in pretty unprecedented ways. Think Jena 6 or Oscar Grant, where online campaigns and petitions shed national spotlight on cases that eventually found their ways to court. The same sentiment even extends to Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, which used online action as a crucial part of its strategy. In each case, keeping online traffic neutral allowed users to access information on their own and help shape the public conversation.
Yet many communities of color still lack regular, home-based access. What’s been called the “digital divide” has been helped incrementally by the surge in popularity of mobile wireless devices for black and brown folks, but advocates say it’s not enough. For instance, you generally can’t write a paper on your Sidekick, and your grandma might be hard pressed to fill out immigration renewal forms on an iPhone.
The key point here is that everyone knows that there’s a problem, but they’re all bickering over how to solve it. The Obama administration included $7.2 billion in broadband stimulus funds as part of the Recovery Act (though Congress voted to rescind $300 million of it this week), and the FCC expressed high hopes for nationwide expansion when it released its National Broadband Plan earlier this year.
But a study by the Social Science Research Council recently showed that cost is just one part of why communities of color have a hard time getting online. While many still rely on so-called “third spaces” — libraries, community centers, and schools — for high speed access, others who can afford it simply can’t get it because it’s not offered in their areas. In one example, residents of a Philadelphia housing project couldn’t get online unless they also paid for Verizon’s costly digital phone service. It’s a similar story in parts of New Mexico, Wisconsin, and other areas where the infrastructure for high speed Internet simply doesn’t exist yet. To date, service providers haven’t received any explicit push to make it happen.
What’s the big deal with Google?
Google was right about at least one thing in yesterday’s rebuttal of its proposal with Verizon: It’s been one of the leading corporate voices on net neutrality over the past five years. In a debate that’s often polarized between big bank telecommunications companies and open Internet activists, Google’s brought much-needed credibility to the idea that the Internet should remain free from interference from service providers. Not to mention that the company’s got a considerable amount of clout. Not convinced? Try to imagine a day without Gmail, Google’s search engine, or even YouTube. At last check, the company was worth more than $23.6 billion, and was named by CNN as one of the 10 most valuable companies in the US.
Google’s also played a key role in the legislative process. In the past they’ve encouraged their users to send letters to Congress in favor of net neutrality, and the company’s CEO Eric Schmidt has written publicly that without net neutrality, the Internet is facing a “serious threat.”
When Google and Verizon made the pre-emptive move to announce their own plan—which favored keeping service providers from interfering with some user traffic, but left the door open to wireless interference—it in effect set the standard for any net neutrality negotiations to come. Already, AT&T has called Google and Verizon’s plan a “reasonable framework”, and when word of the plan came out, the FCC abruptly halted its negotiations with several other big players on the Web. And because the FCC’s been busy trying to reinstate its authority to oversee the Internet in the first place, its hands are basically tied.
For more on Google’s changing positions, see Matthew Lasar’s account on Law & Disorder.