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Net Neutrality Must Be Defended

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I own a boutique website design and hosting company. We are small. Unlike most of our size we have our own data center with upwards of 20 servers connected to a tier 1 (primary internet network) service provider and host an array of services such as email, websites and video for our clients who are small to midsized companies. As hard as it is to compete with the giants like Google and Rackspace who have infinitely more resources we actually can, because our websites and email respond as quickly and show up as fast in your web browser as theirs do. They may dwarf us in scale but we can compete because our data moves across the net as fast as theirs does. Without net neutrality this will change.

As a result of a recent court ruling, the FCC has proposed changes that will effectively due away with net neutrality as we know it. As a small business owner I am against any policy changes that further increase the financial advantages of larger wealthy companies and place smaller ones at a disadvantage. Net neutrality must be maintained.

So what is net neutrality and why is it important? The concept of net neutrality is an outgrowth of the same methodology we use to regulate the telephone companies. The telephone companies are considered "common carriers" and may not charge you differently for the type of sound or speech you wish to use across their networks. So for example the telephone company cannot charge you a different rate to listen to music or send a fax or to talk to your friends. It even covers the type of speech. Meaning that they can't charge you a different rate for what you are saying. Without these rules they could by policy add a surcharge for using profanity or charge extra for speaking Spanish. The rules dictated for the telephone companies require them to have speech neutrality.

People take that speech neutrality for granted mainly because until recently the technology was not available to listen to and interrogate every single phone call. The Internet is different. The underlying technology of the Internet breaks everything up into little packets of data, identifies and categorizes exactly what type of data packet it is (webpage, music, video, speech ...etc) sends it over the network and reassembles it at the other end. The very core of Internet technology makes it easy to differentiate between the types of data or speech that is being transmitted.

Net neutrality says that all packets of data should be treated the same. That the ISP cannot treat different packets of data differently or charge differently for the type of data packets you wish to use.

The recent Appeals court ruling between Comcast and the FCC was precisely about that fact. Comcast had been sued for slowing down the packets of data from one particular service it decided it didn't like. And while the court did not rule on net neutrality in the specific it ruled that the FCC did not have the authority to enforce it on ISP's (Internet Service Providers) like it does for the telephone companies, because ISPs are not classified as Common Carriers but as Information Service Providers.

Ultimately the fight for net neutrality is about money. More and more of our daily lives are tied to the network. Our cell phones connect automatically, we watch TV from services like Netflix and Hulu, our cars send us emails and we even control the lights in our homes remotely thanks to the Internet. As more and more of our devices become connected, without net neutrality, each new use will potentially be a revenue stream for the ISP. You want Netflix then that is an extra $5 a month, Facebook access for a dollar. You want your car to email you its status or want access to your security system then pay extra for that. They could even charge for each new device: $1 per light switch and $2.50 for the refrigerator.

While consumers might balk at up front menu pricing the other side is even more insidious and more immediate because the ISP is then free to charge extra and make deals that give Google or Rackspace or Facebook data higher priority so their web pages and services load faster than ours putting us small guys at a distinct technical disadvantage.

From a technical and cost perspective a packet of data is a packet of data. An email packet or a video packet or music packet is technically the same and does not require different equipment within the network. There is no difference in cost to transmit a packet of data from your refrigerator or your TV or from your PC. The cost is in the amount of data transmitted not the type.

While there are some free market constraints they are limited because in most areas internet access is only available from either the cable company or the telephone company leaving little choice for the consumer. Common practices tend to prevail so you may then have to decide between getting your Netflix or Hulu faster and/or cheaper from the telephone company or your music and Amazon web pages from the cable company. This is not exactly a free market.

The Internet has grown precisely because of current net neutrality practices. On the Internet the small company websites we build and host are on a level and equal playing field to the likes of Wal-Mart or Amazon. Without net neutrality those large companies can pay to have their data packets move faster than ours across the same network. This will stifle innovation, limit growth and increase costs. Without net neutrality it gives the ISPs the freedom to effectively censor or limit speech (packets of data) at their whim and purely for the bottom line. Instead of investing in larger faster networks the ISP can maintain profits by limiting certain data packets and prioritizing others for a fee.

While people may justifiably fear the over regulation of the Internet, net neutrality regulations are a must to maintain the democratic and open network that has allowed small and large business to flourish on an equal footing. My tiny little websites, like those of my clients, move across the network as fast as any large company like IBM or Amazon delivering our message and ideas as fast as theirs. Without net neutrality that will change. Those with deep pockets will be able to pay to move their ideas faster.

The small guys won't stand a chance. Little data centers like ours will have no way to compete. I urge everyone to speak out about the proposed FCC regulations and demand that the practice of net neutrality be restored in FCC policies. Don't we have enough inequality already?