You may have heard references to "net neutrality" on the news recently without knowing much about the issue -- but, as the Internet becomes more important to our daily lives, the issue of net neutrality may turn out to be something that greatly affects you as a consumer in the long run.
Basically, the question is whether the people who provide Internet access can treat some web traffic more favorably than other web traffic.
Many people get their Internet access from a cable TV provider or telephone company. But those companies, like Charter and AT&T, don't just sell Internet access. They also sell their Internet specific services such as telephone service or on-demand movies. There are also independent companies selling some of those same services. For example, Vonage sells telephone service while Netflix offers movies streamed over the Internet.
Proponents of net neutrality worry that Internet providers will arrange things, either on the technical side or the business side, so that their own services have an unfair advantage over the competition. Proponents say net neutrality is needed to make sure that individual Internet users have full and unfettered access to various sites and services and to keep the Internet providers from becoming too monopolistic by controlling both access and content.
Opponents of net neutrality say it would amounts to more burdensome government regulation on Internet providers. They say Internet providers sometimes have practical reasons to prioritize one type of traffic over another. You wouldn't want an important business e-mail, or an alarm from your home security system, to be held up because your neighbor is downloading movies.
There are also questions about how net neutrality would affect wireless Internet providers. Some proposers would impose less of a restriction on the wireless providers because, at present, their bandwidth is more limited, and they may have a more legitimate interest in prioritizing different types of traffic.
In the middle of this dispute, Comcast -- a major player in Internet access -- has gotten into a battle with a company called Level 3 Communications which is involved with Netflix's streaming video service. Comcast and Level 3 need to reach what is called a "peering" arrangement, in which they agree to carry each other's network traffic. Comcast claims this is a one-sided deal because it would have to carry heavy amounts of Level 3's traffic, and would get very little in return. It says it should be paid for the deal. Level 3 says Comcast is discriminating against it because Netflix competes with Comcast's video-on-demand service.
Meanwhile, Comcast is trying to get its purchase of NBC Universal approved by regulators, and some of those regulators are keeping a close watch on Comcast's behavior.
There are good points on both sides, and there are also posturing politicians on both sides. But this is an important issue, and one which has some serious potential long-term consequences. It's easy to throw up your hands and say it's too technical an issue for the average person to understand, but this is a case where it may be worth the effort to inform yourself and take a stand one way or the other.
--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government. He is also the author of the self-published novel "Soapstone." His personal web site is lakeneuron.com.