At its core, net neutrality is very simple. Should the Internet be open? By that we mean, should consumers be able to access content of their choice without restriction? In our capacity as consumers, each of us would surely say yes.
Second question: Do transmission companies (e.g., cable and telco) and content companies (e.g., Google, Facebook and Netflix) agree with that? The clear answer to this is no.
Content Companies. The content companies know that your experience on the Internet is dependent upon choices they make, such as the technology or algorithms they deploy. Their challenge is to run their businesses in the way that best suits them and which annoys their customers the least. Choices by the content companies are restrained by the fierce competition they face. Do I prefer to get my financial information from Google or Yahoo? That question doesn’t matter to anyone other than Google or Yahoo, because I can easily switch from one to the other depending upon my sense of how good a job they are doing. Or, I can purchase a Wall Street Journal subscription. It’s all up to me.
Transmission Companies. The transmission companies know that your experience on the Internet is dependent upon the choices they make with regard to (a) regular network management practices, and (b) their own business goals. Transmission companies are not particularly restrained by competition due to the limited choice of other providers who can serve your needs, the high costs of changing, and to the fact that to a significant extent, the limited competition means that the transmission companies often do not feel keen pressure to differentiate their services. Largely, they march in line.
Probably, you do not object to the transmission companies reasonably managing their networks. Like the electric utilities, they must make the Internet work, and they do.
It is a different story with regard to whether you would knowingly accept your experience on the Internet being altered due to the transmission companies’ individual business goals. Probably if a company said that it is up to them what websites you could access on the Internet (and how), you would disagree. This is because the Internet is our key source of knowledge and the basis for much of today’s commerce.
Net neutrality is about the last issue. The fact is that the transmission companies have, in fact, said that it is their absolute right to determine your experience on the Internet. They have said that the transmission lines are theirs, and therefore what happens over those lines is up to them.
(It may sound like we are making this up, but incredibly Verizon has gone so far as to argue in court that its ability to determine what you see when you fire up your browser is a matter of Verizon’s own First Amendment (free speech) rights.)
Not About How Much Internet Access Costs. It is important to understand that net neutrality is not about how much Verizon and AT&T can charge you for Internet access. They can charge you, their customer, anything they want. What AT&T and Verizon want is to be able to charge you for Internet access, and also to charge the rest of the web when you desire to reach that part of the web. For example, if you want to access your WSJ subscription online, they would like to be able to say to the WSJ that they will not permit that unless the WSJ pays them. And much about that negotiation will be unseen by you. You will have no way of knowing if Verizon throttles the speed to the WSJ or alters your experience in other ways.
Last Thought: Internet as Utility. A key question for anyone is how do you conceive of the Internet? Is access to it necessary in today’s life, or is it optional? If optional, then net neutrality doesn’t matter. If you think it is necessary, then requirements that the Internet be neutral matter a lot.
Consider electricity? Is it necessary in today’s life, or is it optional?