Because it’s easy to get bogged down in technical arcana when discussing a topic such as net neutrality, I’m particularly taken with an argument offered by Siva Vaidhyanathan of New York University. Without net neutrality, Vaidhyanathan explains, Internet service providers — mainly the cable and phone companies — get paid twice. It’s an easy, consumer-friendly message, and more people need to hear it.
Let’s say you’ve got broadband now, and are paying $50 a month. In a few years, your ISP might roll out a new, ultrafast connection that will let you download a full-length movie in just a few minutes. It might even be fast enough that Web-based television becomes a realistic possibility. Do you think you’re going to pay the same $50? Of course not. You’ll pay $70, or $100, or whatever, and if it allows you to get rid of other expensive services, you’ll be glad to do it.
But the ISPs want to charge extra not just to you but also to content providers that wish to take advantage of the faster connection. Here’s how Vaidhyanathan explained it in a recent interview with NPR’s “On the Media”:
[W]hat they’re actually proposing doing is double billing. They want to charge me and you, consumers getting broadband service, a very high rate and extort money from the service providers, so that those willing to write the big check get their stuff delivered faster to you and me. That’s not a fair business practice, nor is it really healthy for the sort of information and cultural environment and economic playing field that we really want to see on the Internet.
Net neutrality simply means treating ISPs as common carriers, requiring them to treat all content providers equally while allowing them to charge customers different fees for different levels of service. This is exactly how the phone companies have always been regulated, and it is how the Internet has evolved — at least until now.
This is not the world’s sexiest issue, yet it’s crucial to our hopes of a democratic, diverse media. That’s why groups ranging from MoveOn.org to the Christian Coalition are fighting for net neutrality. The Internet is the only medium in which major media conglomerates have no delivery advantage over the scruffiest amateurs. The ISPs are trying to change that, and we’ll all be the losers if they win.