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Net neutrality: Five myths, and the real facts

Kristin April Kim | Dec. 2, 2014
Regardless of where you stand on the net neutrality debate, one thing doesn't help: misleading or confusing statements. Unfortunately there are plenty of them.

Regardless of where you stand on the net neutrality debate, one thing doesn't help: misleading or confusing statements. Unfortunately there are plenty of them.

Net neutrality is an Internet ideal that will become possible if the Federal Communications Commission decides to reclassify Internet service providers from information services to telecommunications services. If the FCC reclassifies ISPs, it will be able to regulate them — and that could affect a push by ISPs to provide faster Internet service to Web companies willing to pay for the privilege.

Data-hungry Web companies like Netflix want the speed, and the ISPs want the money. Others, however, fear a pay-to-play scheme could put cash-strapped startup sites at a disadvantage.

Add the pro- and anti-regulation forces to this mix, and the rhetoric's flying in all directions on social media as well as in the news. We've teased out the facts behind five net neutrality myths. It won't resolve the debate, but it'll help you understand what's really going on.

Myth #1: Net neutrality is 'Obamacare for the Internet'

Republican Sen. Ted Cruz's recent tweet making this comparison is more convenient than accurate. Obamacare is about access (to health care), while net neutrality is about quality (think speed) of access to the Internet. More to the point, it's about how to manage just the ISPs, not the Internet as a whole — no matter what conservatives say.

Myth #2: An 'open' and 'neutral' Internet are the same thing

Listen carefully to the use of "open" or "neutral" in this debate. The Internet has always been "open," because anyone can use it for any application. The ISPs are the Internet gatekeepers facing possible regulation, and that's about remaining "neutral."

The term "network neutrality" was coined by Columbia law professor Tim Wu in 2003. The basic concept was that all Internet traffic should be allowed to flow freely regardless of what it is or where it comes from. 

The Internet was a simpler place a decade ago, however. Now, in an age when consumers surf the web, Skype and watch Netflix simultaneously, ISPs face a demand for more bandwidth — and naturally, they want to be paid for providing it. Net neutrality proponents say a pay-to-play fast lane won't be neutral, and may be considered less open, because it will hamper companies that can't afford faster service.

Myth #3: Regulating ISPs is good (or bad) for users

Net neutrality advocates think regulating ISPs will level the playing field for Web entrepreneurs. On the other hand, ISPs and other critics are concerned that regulating the market would discourage future investments in Internet infrastructure.

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said recently that his company will "pause" investments in fiber networks until the net neutrality debate is over. In a less dramatic announcement, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said his company agrees with Obama in principle but that "the unfortunate reality is the uncertainty it creates, investment uncertainty."

 

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