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Define net neutrality.
Chances are you can’t. A recent poll indicated that 72 out of 100 Cal Poly students hadn’t even heard of net neutrality. Of those who had, only 18 could define it.
Net neutrality is arguably one of the biggest issues facing the country — President Barack Obama, John Oliver and even porn stars have taken a stance on the debate. But there is a surprising amount of ignorance around the topic.
If you’re confused, here’s everything you need to know about this developing issue.
Graphic by Jessica Burger
What does ‘net neutrality’ mean?
Net neutrality is the principle that all websites should have equal treatment on the Internet, with no one website loading faster than another — a “level playing field,” according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates communication within the U.S.
Without net neutrality, Internet providers could charge certain companies, such as Netflix, to deliver their content at faster speeds to consumers.
What is the Internet like now?
As it stands, the Internet is similar to a public square with a library in the middle, computer science professor Clark Turner said.
“So everybody can discuss everything, it’s accessible and we can contact each other without much trouble,” he said. “It’s simple, we’re close — the net makes us close, in a way.”
Ideas, he said, are free and open to all.
“I can get ideas from the library, and one book isn’t harder to get than another,” he said. “I have free access to people and free access to information — open access, all the same kind of access.”
Essentially, Internet users can access any website or idea without extra cost.
What’s the issue?
Now, the federal government is debating whether Internet providers — such as Charter or AT&T, which serve San Luis Obispo — should be able to control how long a website takes to load. If net neutrality is upset, these providers would be able to charge for faster loading speeds.
Some, such as Turner, think Internet access should be seen as a public utility, the same as electricity and water. Under that definition, everyone must have equal access to the Internet for a fair price set by the public, he said.
In fact, the Internet was created as a way to safely share ideas and communicate, especially under the threat of war. The World Wide Web, as it was known, was meant to serve as a “web” of information anyone could freely access.
However, in the past decade or so, the court has sided with big companies instead of upholding the idea that the Internet is a public utility.
Earlier this year, Netflix agreed to pay Comcast — an Internet provider used in approximately 32 million households in the U.S. — for smoother streaming. Comcast claimed the extra cost would reduce congestion and ensure quicker loading speeds for Netflix’s approximately 30 million paid subscribers.
If Netflix had chosen not to pay, Comcast could make it so slow that consumers wouldn’t be able to watch it, Turner said.
“If they’re not a public utility, they can charge whatever they want — they can slow it down, speed it up for whoever they want, they can deny access for whatever they want,” he said.
The Internet could look drastically different if this trend continues. In essence, there would be a fast lane and a slow lane — those who can pay for faster speeds and those who cannot. Websites from large companies would likely load quickly, while local sites would take more time.
What’s at stake?
Without net neutrality, the idea of a free, open library could change fundamentally, according to Turner’s analogy.
Some books might be more expensive or harder to read, meaning that not everyone would have the same access to the same ideas.
Turner compared the issue to the Hobby Lobby case earlier this year. In the same way that some companies are no longer required to pay for contraceptives because of religious reasons, Internet providers could slow down certain websites because they don’t agree with their content.
Then, Turner said, consumers would be left with two options: Accept what content they have quick access to, or find another way to access that content.
“They can build a model that is of the most profit to them and provide access to me,” he said. “While I would pay the cost of trying to get information that used to be accessible but may not be, or getting another Internet line, or driving down to the library or using a phone modem — God forbid — to try and get through to something else.”
Small companies wouldn’t be able to pay the Internet providers’ fees for faster loading speeds, but a bigger company could. Therefore, the Internet would no longer be a level playing field.
“Capitalism, when it works, does a pretty fair job when there is an open market,” Turner said. “But this would not be very good capitalism.”
How does that affect me?
If net neutrality is overturned, students wouldn’t be able to compete with larger companies, said computer science sophomore Liam Kirsh, who is starting the Cal Poly Free Culture Club, which aims to promote open source content, among other things.
Students who try to publish their original work online — whether it’s an independent film or a video game — and receive recognition would have to compete with companies who can pay for faster loading speeds. It would cost money to gain an audience, Kirsh said.
But beyond recognition for work, having to compete for an audience means that ideas wouldn’t be spread easily, he said.
“On a slippery slope argument, if you escalated that to allowing people to also pay to get higher publicity for their ideas, I think that could silence the opinions of minorities,” he said. “And so large PACs and large lobbying groups would promote their ideas, and the opinions of other groups and students would be silenced.”
Consumers would lose access to content they want — and are already paying for. When biological sciences junior Gian Gamboa learned what net neutrality is, he said it was unfair that smaller companies are “just being stomped on by the bigger players in the game.”
“Regardless of how big or how small a company is, I should have the freedom of being able to click on either (website),” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s my choice, and I don’t think it’s fair for my choice to be limited just because somebody has more money than another company.”
What’s happening now?
Currently, the FCC is debating whether Internet providers should be allowed to control loading speeds. Since it’s a political issue, Kirsh recommends students write to their Congressional representatives, sign a petition or simply share information about net neutrality with their friends.
Check out this timeline to see where net neutrality stands today.
Timeline by Jessica Burger