By Neil Schulman
Net neutrality is once again in the news, and there’s a big problem discussing it: nobody understands net neutrality. It’s important, but it’s also complex and confusing.
Personally, I’ve only heard one situation that compromised net neutrality I found interesting – though not totally convincing. And that wasn’t in the United States.
Instead of something complex like net neutrality, let’s talk about something that took place in 1889, more than a century before anyone ever heard of the World Wide Web.
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Part of this story may be apocryphal, but it’s pretty believable to me.
In the 1880s, Civil War veteran Almon Brown Strowger was working as an undertaker in a small town in Kansas. It wasn’t that small, however; it was big enough for two funeral parlors.
When Strowger got one of those new inventions, a telephone, he thought it would make his business easier. Instead, it dropped significantly — while the other funeral home was always busy.
The reason was that back in those days, you couldn’t place a call directly. You needed to phone the local operator, who connected you to the person you were trying to reach by plugging your line into the right place on the switchboard.
And the local phone operator was married to Strowger’s competitor. So whenever someone called with sad news, she connected them to her husband’s business.
In 1889, Strowger created the first automatic telephone exchange. Now, instead of relying on a biased operator, a person could place a call merely by dialing a set of numbers.
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I’m sure that all of us for the last 120 years have taken dialing a phone number for granted. If I call and place an order to a local pizza parlor, I don’t need to worry that T-Mobile, my carrier, will connect me with Pizza Hut or Dominos — even though I know that T-Mobile has sponsorship deals with pizza chain restaurants.
There are also laws in place preventing a phone carrier from deliberately making calls to one place filled with static and another crystal clear. And if the board of a phone company was somehow filled with racists, they couldn’t block calls made to African American communities.
Phone carriers must remain “neutral,” passing on calls made to and from them to the best of their ability.
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When you go to a site on the internet — let’s say Google, to use an example — it looks as though you type “google.com” into the browser bar and then go to Google. That’s not what’s actually happening.
Everything you do on the internet goes through your ISP, internet service provider. If you live in Long Branch, that’s probably Comcast. So if you type “google.com,” what you’re actually doing is asking Comcast to direct your computer to Google, the way that when you dial a number, you’re asking the phone company to put you through to that person.
Net neutrality says, simply, that internet providers can’t act like the phone operator who inspired Strowger’s invention. They should take on the role of an automated switchboard, passing on your information impartially.
This is, again, a gross simplification of what happens and how it works. But it’s good enough to understand why it’s important.
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Before the Federal Communications Commission passed net neutrality in 2015, there were incidents that demonstrated the need for this.
For years, people with Comcast who tried to watch Netflix got horribly grainy and stuttery pictures. If they tried to watch the similar service Hulu – owned, incidentally, by Comcast – the movies were crystal clear.
In 2005, Vonage, which lets you place phone calls over the internet (called VOIP), was blocked by at least one cable company. Some people who relied on it couldn’t make 911 calls.
In 2006, America Online blocked emails that were critical of AOL’s policies.
While it took place in Canada, not here, there was a time Candadian company Telus wouldn’t let its users access sites criticizing Telus.
In 2011, several internet providers were found redirecting search results. Rather than give you information about a product, it would send you directly to the product’s website – and the companies got a fee for hijacking your search results.
Normally, the companies involved had an excuse, if you wanted to buy it. AOL, for example, said that it was just a software glitch. Comcast said that Netflix was an excessive amount of bandwidth compared to anything else – which sounds plausible unless you know that other ISPs had no problem keeping up Netflix’s demands.
It’s safe to say that anyone calling this “a solution in need of a problem,” the anti-net neutrality line, is being disingenuous at best,
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There are a handful of arguments against net neutrality I’m sympathetic to. Most of those deal with the technical aspects. If, for example, every ISP had a problem managing the massive amount of traffic from Netflix, I’d have been sympathetic to Comcast’s throttling of the service to keep everything else running smoothly.
I just don’t want to log on to one of my favorite sites one day and find it’s running sluggish because they didn’t pay my ISP to be in the “fast lane.”
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The one case I found somewhat interesting, where net neutrality and poverty intersected, happened in India. It’s a huge country with high poverty rates, and many people only have internet access through their phone. Plans there are often fairly expensive.
Facebook wanted to help out by offering free Internet access in some of the poorest parts of the country. But their plan was rejected.
Facebook planned to offer a service called Free Basics, which offered free access to Facebook and a limited number of websites. To take a hypothetical, you might be able to shop at India’s online equivalent of Walmart but not its Target equivalent.
This was well meaning; Facebook apparently wasn’t seeking kickbacks from the sites included. But it still would be a major setback to those who weren’t on the list. Remember, this is potentially more than a billion customers being told to favor one site over another.
So India rejected this as a violation of net neutrality principles. I’m pretty sure they made the right decision, but it seems a shame to cut off access like that for principles.
To use the analogy I started with, Facebook was a well meaning operator, trying to offer customers the service it thought they wanted instead of what they asked for.