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The Basics of Net Neutrality and What its Repeal Means

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On Thursday the FCC will vote on repealing the regulations set in 2015 regarding net neutrality. This has been a hot topic since FCC chairman Ajit Pai re-announced these plans on November 21st after the first version of the plan was announced in April. The loss of net neutrality has many far-reaching implications that have sparked great concern, protest and online activism over the last few weeks so we wanted to explain what net neutrality is and what losing it could lead to, so our readers can make up their own minds on where they stand regarding Thursday’s vote.

Net neutrality is essentially a consumer protection plan. In 2015 Tom Wheeler, then chairman of the FCC, established a set of rules that were designed to make sure that consumers paying for Internet access will continue to be able to access their favorite websites and apps. One of the biggest pieces of net neutrality is the belief that all information and content on the internet should be treated the same.

Net neutrality has classified the Internet, more specifically the high speed internet broadband networks, as a public utility. The argument for this classification came from an analogy to our infrastructure and how specific travelers can't be excluded from our highway system, it's open to everyone and doesn't favor one traveler over another. This is called the "common-carrier" principle.

A classic example of this concept is a ferry service that uses public roads and waterways to run its business. Under common-carrier principles, the ferry operator can't pick and choose those who get transported across the river. The service must be open to all travelers since it uses public rights of way. Many believe that this is how the internet should operate, ISPs shouldn't be able to pick and choose the content their customers have access to because the Internet is a public utility.  

The Internet has always operated on the basic principle of net neutrality, it’s why people have been able to create companies like Facebook, Google and Youtube. Neutrality makes sure that someone visiting Youtube.com and our website are treated equally, and that one site isn’t favored over the other. But who have we been being treated equally by?   

Internet service providers, ISPs, have been required to treat all Internet content equally. Comcast, Cableone, AT&T, CenturyLink, and Verizon are examples of internet service providers. Net neutrality has prevented any of these providers from breaking any rules set in 2015, it’s required them to have transparency about how they manage and run their networks and has, thus, kept the internet “fair” in the eyes of many consumers and regulators.

Some of the rules set in 2015 prevent an ISP from blocking or slowing connection speeds to certain websites or charging companies to deliver their services more quickly to customers. An example of this would be if Comcast or AT&T, both major players in cable television and internet service providers, slowed down or completely blocked access to websites like Netflix or Hulu because they’re a competitor of cable television.

The majority of arguments against net neutrality come from the ISPs. They argue that the rules are unnecessary and even dangerous to the ability of companies to innovate and keep up with the rapid pace of technological advances. Another argument is that these rules have discouraged investments from major companies into the field of technology, communications and the Internet in general.

If the vote on Thursday passes, which many expect it to, ISP’s could completely restructure the services they provide. Many of you have gone through the process of signing up for television services, the most basic packages grant you access to the most basic stations, usually local stations and a small number of common channels. The more money you pay, the more channels you have, options like NFL’s Sunday Ticket are also given, for a fee of course.

This is how the internet could potentially operate. Your current rate would grant you access to the most popular sites and any additional sites would cost extra or be packaged into different plans. You may end up paying more to use your Netflix membership if your ISP is Comcast, a competitor of Netflix, instead of Verizon. You could have companies like Facebook paying ISPs to grant consumers quicker speeds to their site than their competitor, Twitter. The use of hidden fees, rising rates and surcharges for customers who use more data than others are also very real possibilities.

There is no guarantee that this will happen. The way we use the internet could remain the same and the changes would be felt by internet companies like Amazon, Netflix, Facebook, Google and others. They could be forced, by ISPs, to pay tolls to be able to send their content or services to you. This wouldn't be hard for major companies like the ones listed above to pay but what about small or startup companies that have limited resources? They could be boxed out.

There are many people across the country who are very worried about the loss of net neutrality. In fact, the FCC has received over 21 million comments submitted on net neutrality to their website. That isn’t counting the over 2 million supporters on various “save net neutrality” petitions on Change.org or similar websites. The bad news is that the FCC, specifically Ajit Pai, made clear that it would be dismissing most of the comments it received. The reasoning, too many of the comments were identical. This isn’t uncommon, most people aren’t aware of how to properly reach out to their representatives or governing bodies, so instructions and templates are created to simplify the process.

While the FCC is rejecting the majority of the submissions for net neutrality, one of their arguments for repealing it was that they received a large number of anti-neutrality pleas. After some investigation it was revealed that many of the anti-neutrality pleas came from bots using real information, sometimes from children as young as 11 years old. So, while the FCC is refusing to recognize the 21 million please against the repeal, most of which came from real people who copy and pasted their arguments, they’re also refusing to investigate the 1.3 million pro-repeal comments that have been identified as coming from spambots.

Regardless of where you stand on the issue of net neutrality, it is a big deal. What we think is an even bigger issue is that the millions of pleas, comments and opinions from citizens like us are going unheard or being completely ignored. This does not bode well for the democratic process, we the people are supposed to have some input about what happens on Capital Hill and the regulatory commissions that have been created to serve the citizens of the United States.

We will be watching carefully on Thursday to see what happens when the 5-member commission votes on repealing net neutrality. What are your thoughts on net neutrality and what it might mean to lose it? We are curious about what our readers think about these kinds of issues and always encourage the sharing of opinions because that’s one of the greatest parts of being American, we have the ability and legal right to believe what we want to believe. Comment your opinions, thoughts and ideas below!

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