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March 22, 2011

Net Neutrality and Why It Matters

Before diving into net neutrality, it should be noted that a bi-partisan study seemed to show most Americans don't want net neutrality.

Thankfully, this wasn't the most intriguing piece of data gathered in the study; rather, the juicy bits came with the revelation that a majority Americans don't even know what net neutrality is despite holding an opinion on its merits nor do they know why they should care about it.

What is Net Neutrality?

Barry Dillman, CEO of InterActiveCorp, an internet company with over 50 web brands, said that people should be "screaming for net neutrality" in recent comments he made at the SXSW music and technology festival. 

Simply stated, net neutrality means broadband service providers are not allowed to restrict access to any public content, services, or applications that are legally accessible on the internet. They also cannot charge you additional fees to access online content or services. The FCC approved a net neutrality proposal late last year, but many argue there's a long way to go in order to protect uninhibited access to the internet.

Why Does it Matter?

Imagine this: You use Skype, a web-based phone service, to talk with your family and friends. Without net neutrality, your internet service provider could force you to pay additional money each month to use Skype even though it is free to use. In fact, your ISP could restrict access to Skype altogether. At issue here is the fact that most ISP's offer some sort of phone service; by essentially choking Skype to the point where it's not useable, they'd force the consumer to use (and pay for) the phone service they provide.

The absence of net neutrality could also mean that large companies, such as Target and Walmart, could pay extra money to ISP's in exchange for a guarantee that their websites load faster than competitor websites. Might not seem like such a bad thing, unless of course you're a competitor with a tight budget. The web has always had a low barrier to entry: anyone can create a website and compete with all of the other websites out there for a very small investment of time and resources. Given that corporations dominate every other form of media--television, radio, and magazines--not having net neutrality could open the door for that same scenario to unfold on the web.

Basically, without net neutrality, your internet service options might look like your TV service options: you get the channels you pay for. In that sense, the web would no longer function as a bastion of informational freedom and choice like it does now, which is arguably a significant loss for the consumer. It may also create difficulties for small businesses, as they may not have the capital to adequately position themselves in such a large, yet restrictive market. This may mean that down the road we'll find ourselves in a virtual landscape where today's startups wouldn't have a fighting chance.

A comprehensive net neutrality bill would protect consumers, small businesses, and the collective freedoms we've all enjoyed online since the birth of the internet.

Back to the Poll

Finally, the same study referenced earlier revealed that people heavily favor being protected by a internet "consumer bill of rights." You probably guessed it: net neutrality is a consumer bill of rights! Clearly, there's a corollary relationship at work here: The more a person knows about net neutrality, the more likely they are to support it.

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