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What is Net Neutrality?

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Even though it's an important topic in technology and political circles, the idea of net neutrality hasn't really captured the public's attention yet. Maybe it's because most people don't follow technology issues too closely—especially if there's some political angle involved. Consumers get really interested only when it's going to affect their pocketbook, the quality of their service or their perceived online freedoms.

So this article will address net neutrality in a very simple question-and-answer format that touches on the base issues. That might be all the foundation you need to continue researching the topic on your own.

What's net neutrality about?

There is an opinion that cable companies don't treat everyone the same. The current U.S. administration (President Obama and supporters) believe cable and phone companies should deliver the same level of Internet service to everyone and fair pricing to everyone. They say that if the electrical and water departments can do it, so should those who provide Internet access. The President has asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to adopt changes "ensuring that neither the cable company nor the phone company will be able to act as a gatekeeper, restricting what you can do or see online."

What the President is pushing for is net neutrality—new rules that will guide and govern Internet Service Providers and force them to deliver services and pricing fairly. Net neutrality has also been called "open Internet." The topic has been around for a decade, so it's not new.

And not everyone agrees with the net neutrality...especially Internet Service Providers.

So it's mostly about fair Internet speeds and pricing?

Not totally. Net neutrality also means that all content that is legal on the Internet should be treated equally. There's evidence, for instance, that an ISP can affect the delivery of content from specific websites...if they choose to. For instance, Comcast had to agree not to favor content from NBC over other video providers, such as YouTube, when Comcast acquired NBC Universal more than 10 years ago. In practice, net neutrality would discourage an ISP from treating competing online sites unequally.

What do online companies such as Google and Facebook have to say?

A lot of online companies such as Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and YouTube, claim that some changes could allow ISPs to increase pricing for so-called better or faster service. It's been referred to as an "express lane" for data on the Internet. So online companies fear having to pay more tomorrow to deliver the same quality of service under net neutrality. Amazon, Microsoft, Google and more than 100 other companies put their concerns in writing to the FCC.

What about ISPs?

Internet Service Providers argue that the government is about to make unneeded and drastic changes that will do more harm than good. More than two dozen ISPs, including Comcast, Cox Communications, Verizon and AT&T, have banded together to say that the Internet works best for everyone—ISPs, online companies and consumers—with simple rules, occasional changes and everyday competition that brings out the best in innovation, service and quality.

So, what does it all mean?

The feeling of net neutrality advocates is that ISPs can and will manipulate services and prices because there aren't rules in place to PREVENT them from doing that. ISPs respond by saying that isn't the case at all. In fact, they say that forcing net neutrality on them through changes and regulations "would impose great costs, allowing unprecedented government micromanagement of all aspects of the Internet economy."

As with all arguments that are political, it's not easy to know who's telling the truth or what side YOU should believe in. All the talk about Internet "fast lanes" and preferred pipelines has only confused the issue. One Washington, D.C., lawyer familiar with the argument said, "The whole debate about net neutrality has been hijacked by self-interest and sidetracked by a poor metaphor."

What should ordinary consumers think?

The big issue is truly out of your hands. There is a valid argument at the heart of net neutrality...if you're of the belief that cable companies are a monopoly that can (and will) manipulate services and prices. Many people believe that the cable companies (Time-Warner, Comcast, Cox, and others) want to charge companies like Facebook, Netflix, Amazon/Hulu and others more money to "make sure" that their content is delivered quickly and without interruption. That doesn't sound very fair.

Without net neutrality, will cable companies manipulate their services to alter pricing in their favor? Will the small players in the online world, and consumers, be victims? If that's the case, then net neutrality might be a good idea that has your best interests in mind.

In the end, as with everything else, you'll just have to see how it all nets out...and how it affects you.

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