The Importance of Net Neutrality

If you’ve been watching the news lately, you’ve probably seen the term “net neutrality” at the core of some passionate debates. Despite the attention, many internet users are still not sure what the term means, what the controversy is all about, and how it might affect them. Let’s take a closer look.

What It Means

The basic principle of “net neutrality” is that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should treat all data in the same manner.  The idea is that ISPs should function as a neutral information gateway, not as “gatekeepers” controlling what data is passed through and with what level of preference. Advocates of net neutrality take the position that ISPs constitute a form of utility, like companies providing electricity or water, and should be similarly regulated.

When ISPs apply different standards and different speeds or quality of service to different users, content, platforms, websites or application types, they violate the principle of net neutrality. Abandoning this principle has both political and economic implications, which is why net neutrality advocates push for legislation they say will protect all internet users, provide a fair and equitable marketplace, and protect the “open internet” that we enjoy today.

The History

The term “net neutrality” came to prominence in 2003, expanding on the concept of a common carrier in the telecommunications industry.  The most widely used example of violating net neutrality occurred when prominent ISP Comcast slowed down the upload speed of file sharing applications until the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) intervened and ordered them to stop.

In 2010, the FCC passed a package of rules designed to keep the Internet neutral. Verizon, a prominent ISP, challenged those rules in court, and in January of 2014, a US Court of Appeals ruled in Verizon’s favor, stating that the agency did not have the authority to regulate broadband providers. In February 2015, the FCC under Chairman Tom Wheeler reclassified broadband as a utility, effectively granting itself the capacity to regulate and restore the 2010 rules. Those rules were lengthy, but the three main points were that providers could not block access to legal content, could not impair or degrade transmission of legal content, or prioritize delivery of paid traffic or traffic from their affiliates.[1] These rules are now under serious threat. Ajit Pai, Donald Trump’s FCC Chair, is a known opponent of net neutrality and is expected to roll back the net neutrality rules.

Who’s Involved

The opponents of net neutrality fall broadly into two groups. One is the ISPs themselves, dominated by a small handful of companies: Time Warner Cable, Comcast, Cox Communications, T-mobile, or Verizon. The 14 largest cable and telephone providers in the US provide service to about 95% of American internet subscribers.[2] Comcast alone serves 56% of US Broadband (25Mbps download and 3Mbps upload) customers.[3] The limited number of providers means that many subscribers have very limited options for choosing a provider. 30 percent of US census blocks have no broadband ISP at all, and 55 percent have only one.[4] Proponents of net neutrality use limited choice as an argument for greater regulation, pointing out that customers who are dissatisfied with the restrictions imposed by an ISP may not have the option of switching to a competing provider.

ISPs claim that they have made major investments in the infrastructure needed to deliver internet service and that they need to have flexibility in delivering service to assure return on their investments. They point out that high-demand services like Netflix, Hulu, and other video streaming services consume disproportionate amounts of bandwidth, and claim that these companies should pay more for delivery of their services. Net neutrality opponents point out that under the current rules the costs of providing the infrastructure dominated by high-volume services and their users is shared across all users, penalizing the many users who only use basic services. Why, they ask, should consumers who only use Facebook and e-mail have to share the cost of providing the huge data pipe needed by Netflix users?

It is important to distinguish ISPs from content providers, which are companies, Netflix or Amazon for example, that use the services of an ISP to deliver their content to internet users. It is possible for a company, to be both an ISP as well as a content provider.  Some companies work in both roles: for example, Comcast owns NBCUniversal, so they fall into both categories. Companies operating as both ISPs and content providers have a special interest in repealing neutrality rules, which prevent them from prioritizing their content or content provided by their subsidiaries or affiliates.

Some economic conservatives oppose net neutrality on the general grounds that reducing government regulation is desirable in general. The primary claims here is that reducing the ability of ISPs to earn money will reduce investment in the industry, stifle innovation, and reduce efficiency.

The second group opposing net neutrality is composed primarily of economic conservatives who oppose regulation of industry in general, for ideological reasons. This group simply assumes that regulation will distort the market, reduce investment, and impair efficiency.

What’s At Stake

What will happen if the government rolls back net neutrality rules and abandons the goal of neutrality? Nobody can reliably say what would happen, but we can look at what could happen.

  • ISPs could start selling bundles, like cable companies, limiting access to high-volume services like Netflix, YouTube, or peer-to-peer download sites to customers that buy more expensive packages. Instead of getting access to the Internet as a whole, the sites you can reach could be determined by the package you buy.
  • ISPs could ask companies like Netflix or Google to pay for preferential access, a cost that would inevitably be passed on to consumers.
  • ISPs could create “fast lanes” that prioritize content from their affiliate networks or favored sites, games, or services, giving preferred customers a speed boost or exempting them from data caps.
  • ISPs could impose actual censorship; refusing to transmit news from certain channels or reducing access for individuals or organizations who hold views they find distasteful.
  • The ability of regulators to control privacy violations and efforts to mine and sell personal data for marketing or other purposes could be reduced.

Most ISPs publicly promise that they won’t do these things. Comcast CEO David Watson wrote, “Comcast does not and will not block, throttle, or discriminate against lawful content,” but has backed away from previous promises that the Company would not adopt “fast lane deals with content owners.”[5] There is little real assurance that ISPs will keep those promises without explicit regulations. ISPs have already tried some of these moves: Comcast has throttled BitTorrent users and forced Netflix to pay to avoid throttling, and T-Mobile exempts certain apps from its data caps, giving those apps a competitive advantage.[6] This history suggests that ISPs will not hesitate to use an unregulated marketplace to their advantage.

What Can You Do?

Companies like Google are applying pressure to the FCC to preserve the open internet, but individual consumers also have a voice.  To express your concerns to the FCC, please visit this link.  Another group pushing for tighter controls around net neutrality is ‘Save the Internet”.  They urge you to contact Congress via their website and join the fight to ensure we regulate appropriately to preserve net neutrality.  Contacting your Senator and Representative and communicating your opinion clearly and with conviction does make a difference.

The concept of net neutrality is simple but important.  There is a real need to assure that all ISPs will treat all data equality and behave in an ethical manner that ensures we keep the open internet available for all.  Like many industries before it, the internet provider sector needs to be heavily regulated to avoid monopoly control and assure fair and equitable access to information and communications services.  We all need to act and join the call to arms.  Write to your local congress member and the FCC and voice your concerns, so we can all continue to enjoy our favorite content in a fair, affordable and equitable marketplace.


[1] “The FCC’s Net Neutrality Vote: Here’s What You Need to Know”:

[2] “Internet Subs: Cable’s Market Share Hits 64%”:

[3] “Comcast now has more than half of all US broadband customers”:

[4] “US Broadband: Still no ISP choice for many, especially at higher speeds”:

[5] “Comcast quietly deletes language about internet fast lanes”:

[6] “Your Guide To Net Neutrality (2017 Edition)”:

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