Staying Neutral at the Dinner Table this Thanksgiving

In anticipation of tomorrow’s turkey consumption ritual, a number of us are filled with equal parts anticipation and dread. Dread over what heinous political remarks will come out from over-the-hill Uncle Jay or the idealistic comments from newly-campus-minded cousin Mara.

And while Emily Post would have us ignorantly guide the conversation back to the meal at hand, there is one safe space in politics we should look raise this Thanksgiving: Net Neutrality. The below article provides a brief summary on the impacts of Net Neutrality. Think of it as your cliff notes for the dinner table. And if you like what you’ve read, please consider calling your local lawmakers to tell them how you feel about preserving a free and open internet.

What is Net Neutrality?

Net Neutrality is the principle that the internet is free and open, that all websites are equally accessible from any device using any internet connection.

Simply put, it’s the Internet as it is right now, as you’ve come to know it since you first logged on in the 1990s. Repealing Net Neutrality would transform the currently open internet into a model similar to cable television. You would have a choice of providers (many of whom would be the same, like Comcast, TimeWarner, AT&T, etc.) who provide your internet service. But instead of just providing the connection through your router, the internet service provider (ISP) would control the speed and availability of content.

Have you ever ordered a cable package thinking you would of course get your favorite basic channel, like ESPN or Food Network, only to find that channel requires additional payment (along with 12 other channels you’ve never heard of)? That same service provision could be coming soon to a computer near you.

How Would Repealing Net Neutrality Impact Me?

Now that’s a loaded question, depending on who you are and how you use the internet. Let’s run through some basics of what repealing Net Neutrality would mean for some of the most widely used internet services:

  1. Streaming Content
    The internet’s most popular streaming service is also a stand-alone content provider. That is, Netflix is not owned by an ISP like Comcast or AT&T who own or partially own streaming service competitors like HBOGo and Hulu. Under Net Neutrality, the ISPs are required to provide all websites the same bandwidth (that’s the digital highway of internet information which can be widened – think eight lane interstates – to allow free flowing traffic, or constricted to a grinding halt) so that no one site has a competitive advantage in reaching users.
  2. Social Media
    Whether it’s Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Vine (RIP), or what-have-you, social media sites have become the hub of the online world. While Net Neutrality promoted an open world of interaction, its repeal could place surprising limits on your interactions.

    Imagine this: Without Net Neutrality, ISPs have the right to place a cap on how much data you use from any website(s). Downloading data like text files and emails are relatively small, but high-definition photos and videos require greater amounts of data. Do you like watching videos on Instagram? Well, your ISP could put a 10 gigabyte cap on data from Instagram and introduce a pay wall requiring you to pay another $10 for every extra gig that month.

    Sound familiar? It should, it’s the same system these providers use for mobile data limits already.

  3. News Sites & Journalism
    Do you still get the newspaper delivered? If not, you probably rely on the internet as a primary source of news. Whether that’s the latest political breakdown from your favorite blog, the website for a media giant a la Fox News or NBC, the Wall Street Journal Online, or just scores from ESPN; Net Neutrality protects your right to access those websites

    Online, Net Neutrality is synonymous with free speech.

    A repeal of Net Neutrality allows service providers to slow, or totally block, websites they do not wish to provide. While that may seem like a good thing for some websites you don’t want your kids to visit, this has far-reaching potential. Repealing Net Neutrality hands over the reins of all internet access to your ISP. If the ISP has political leaning contrary to a website, it would have the power to eliminate that website’s voice.

  4. eCommerce
    Planning to do your holiday shopping this year on Amazon? Or maybe just online in general?

    Cyber Monday offers all the perks of Black Friday, but without the risk of being Mufasa-ed at your local shopping mall. Thanks to Net Neutrality, all your favorite retailers are accessible online, so that tie for dad and earmuffs for mom are two clicks away. Don’t like the prices you see on one website? It’s simple enough to enter the product name and look elsewhere.

    Without Net Neutrality, the internet’s free market may not be so free. In a non-neutral internet, retailers would be able to pay ISPs for preferable download speeds and content promotion. It could also lead to an ISP blocking certain competitors entirely from a user’s line of sight. That has other implications which we’ll cover next…

  5. Small Businesses
    They’re the backbone of our nation’s economy… or at least that’s what we hear every fourth year in election season. But it’s hard not to know someone who makes their livelihood as either a small business owner or employee. And those small businesses will tell you, having a functional and easily-found website is an integral part of success in today’s world.

    So how does Net Neutrality impact small business? The impacts come in two primary categories:
    First, access: small businesses depend on internet users being able to find their websites. In a non-neutral internet, ISPs could promote their big-business clients who fork over the most cash to be the “Exclusive Hardware Sponsor of ‘X-BRAND’ Internet” and deny access to your local shop’s website.
    Second is functionality, a slow-moving website is nearly as bad as no website at all. Without Net Neutrality, ISPs could charge website owners (similar to how they charge cable content providers) at different rates for different speeds of service. A behemoth like Amazon wouldn’t blink at the prospect of paying an ISP for top-notch service, but is that an expense your small business can afford? There won’t just be one ISP that comes calling either. Each ISP can charge its own fees for varying internet speeds of providing your content, effectively pricing out many small businesses from the internet.

Why Get Rid of Net Neutrality?

A fair question, seeing as we spend the first 1,000 words fighting for Net Neutrality.

Unsurprisingly, the biggest supporters of repealing Net Neutrality are the internet service providers themselves. It’s hard to argue that more and more television is moving towards a computer and the two are converging via the internet. Since cable service providers and ISPs tend to be one in the same, the ISPs are looking to gain the same profitability advantages they’ve enjoyed via cable on the internet.

If you look back at the negatives we discussed, it’s easy to see how the ISPs profit from each. They can push their co-owned content and restrain their competition, they can enforce additional payments and penalties on the heaviest internet users, and can charge website owners and their underlying businesses on the supply side as well.

Are there potential benefits? Sure, here are a few of them:

  • ISPs would have the ability to deny websites which engage in criminal or hate-based activity (though the FCC already has the power to do this)
  • ISPs could offer packages to make the internet more child-friendly by restricting access to certain website (currently, any internet user could build their own firewall or employ an existing firewall service)
  • The burden of managing the internet’s content shifts from the FCC, in large part, to the individual ISPs

What’s Next for Net Neutrality?

On Thursday, December 14, Congress can vote to block the repeal of Net Neutrality. The FCC has already put this repeal in motion, despite insistent pleas from the country to keep our internet free.

Congress needs to hear from you. And from Uncle Jay and cousin Mara too. So this Thanksgiving, give thanks for the free and open internet. Talk about it with your family at the table. Use the internet options open to you to continue fighting for Net Neutrality. And encourage everyone, for whichever reason is most personal to them, to call their members of Congress to keep our net neutral.