Life is not neutral. So why should the Internet be? That is certainly one way to look at the question of net neutrality. However, a more mature way to look at the debate would be to say that precisely because life is not neutral, the Internet ought to be. Trust me to turn everything into a larger philosophical discussion. There was no need bring in life into the current debate over net neutrality.
With both The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times reporting that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) might be getting ready with new rules that effectively end net neutrality as we know it. For those of you who may not keep up with such subjects, net neutrality ensures that you as a consumer get to access whatever content you like without your service provider middling on how fast you can get to it. So far FCC rules generally do not allow internet service providers (ISPs) such as Comcast or Verizon to offer a faster or preferential access to content creators who are willing to pay more. In other words, theoretically you should be able to get to this stupid little blog with as much ease as you might the Times or the Journal. That could change if the reporting by that very Times and Journal is any indication.
Net neutrality, which means ISPs cannot discriminate where you get faster because some content creator has paid them more money, is seen as the fundamental reason for such an explosive growth of creativity and freedom on the Internet. With the potential new FCC rules, it could mean that the moneybags may be able to muscle the no-moneybags out. Stratification on the basis of what a consumer pays is the norm in many industries. A lot of us have experienced the distinction being a cattle class air traveler, which I am, and business class or first class traveler, which I never will be. But at least in air travel, while the trimmings and comfort level may be decidedly superior in the first or business class to the economy, the plane’s speed remains the same for everyone. It is not as if the first class passengers get faster to Singapore, followed by the business class and finally, if at all, the coach passengers. There is no discrimination or distinction on who reaches faster. Of course, there is distinction on who deplanes faster—the first class, the business class and then the wretched like you and I. So there is staggered discrimination in many industries.
If net neutrality rules change, from the way I understand there is a theoretical possibility that bandwidth-heavy content providers such as Netflix or Google or Amazon and so on could strike deals with ISPs such as Comcast whereby they get preferential access for a higher fee. That higher fee will naturally be transferred to you and I. Where it differs from the airline example is that the speeds of access and the ease of access could be different for different people. Ardent advocates of net neutrality argue that all net traffic should be treated equally. Period. The new rules could make that more conditional.
News reports suggest that the FCC would require that while ISPs can create a preferential pipeline, they cannot block or slow down access or loading of websites that do not pay ISPs a higher fee. I am curious to see how this form of institutionalized discrimination is achieved. It sounds like the airline model to me. ISPs are already offering different speeds for different fees. Why not keep a net neutral majority landscape where all sites, including the preferred ones can be accessed with equal but comparatively slow speed, and then also offer a faster, more preferred landscape for a higher fee? Add an extra layer on top of the existing net neutral landscape as it exists today. I don’t know if this makes any sense but to me it does.
Net neutrality does not sound like a matter of life and death for most of the humanity right now. However as broadband becomes more widespread, the humanity will begin to experience discrimination in one more sphere of life. So life may not be neutral but it ought to be in some places at least.