Net neutrality: Five myths, and the real facts

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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.”

There's no myth here. We simply don't know what ISPs will end up doing if they face regulation.

Myth #4: Without net neutrality, some Internet users will experience slower service

This isn't a myth either, but two different positions around the same fact. This is the fact: If ISPs offer faster service for some Web companies, the service for other companies will be slower by comparison.

The argument centers around a perception: Is slower bad, or just not as good as faster? Net neutrality advocates warn that if ISPs give some websites a fast lane for an extra fee, that's essentially downgrading service for all other websites. Opponents contend that service to all wouldn’t be downgraded, but those who paid extra would get better (faster) service.

Myth #5: President Obama has the final word on net neutrality

While the President’s opinion might hold more weight than yours or mine, it’s not binding. Since President Obama issued his statement supporting reclassification, the White House has reiterated that the ultimate decision will be in the hands of the independent FCC.

That means FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is under a lot of pressure. His only official statement reflects that the commission is trying its best to end the years-long quest for net neutrality rules: “We must take the time to get the job done correctly, once and for all, in order to successfully protect consumers and innovators online.” A decision is expected in the near future.

This story, "Net neutrality: Five myths, and the real facts" was originally published by PCWorld.

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