by Glen Wallace

Bear in mind, the following is my understanding of what net neutrality is; however, I could very well be wrong.

What it’s not:  net neutrality does not effect your choice of internet service providers nor their ability to offer packages of varying speeds and data limit levels.  Nor does net neutrality effect your ability to choose web hosts if you want or need your own web page nor does net neutrality effect the hosts ability to offer various packages of hosting features involving things like server space, private or shared servers, monthly data levels, email accounts and so on.  We already have choices involving ISP’s and Hosts and the vendors providing those services already have the ability to offer different packages involving different services.  And, we already have net neutrality.

So, where’s the neutrality?  The neutrality that we already have and we want to keep involves the physical backbone of the internet and the computerized ‘switching stations’ through which all internet traffic must flow for connections and communications to be made between web sites and web viewers.   I put ‘switching stations’ in single quotes because I don’t think that is the correct technical term for the infrastructure part of the internet that I’m thinking of, but, regardless, I think the term gives a good picture of what that part does with the ones and zeros flowing through the internet.

Net neutrality enforces rules requiring the owners of those switching stations not to charge a toll on the data through those stations.  Of course the switching station owners would love to charge a toll as that would provide a bountiful of revenue corresponding to the bountiful flow of traffic on the internet.  But with net neutrality, there is no such toll, and as a result we have a great deal of freedom and variety in terms of what we can post, upload, view and read on the internet.

Now, bear in mind, I don’t think that an end to net neutrality would result in individual web site viewers paying a toll directly to the switching station owners.  I’m not certain, but I think the tolls would be paid by either the website owners or the hosting companies for those websites or a combination of both the sites and the hosts.  But of course, if one individual wants to create their own little website, the costs of doing so could become out of reach.  Similarly, Google, the owners of YouTube, might have to start being much more restrictive and selective for what they allow users to upload.  As it is now, YouTube makes it very easy to publish a video and anyone can do so as long as the video meets their reasonable community standards such as not being hate speech or harassing or copyright violating.

But if Google has to pay a toll for each and every video that gets uploaded and then has to pay another toll each time that video is viewed, it may have to start filtering and selecting only those videos that are conducive to creating the best ad revenue.  Similarly, Amazon and Netflix would likely have to charge considerably more for streaming their movies and shows.  Facebook might have to start charging membership fees.

As one might expect, charging tolls to websites could also have a quelling effect on freedom of speech across the whole political spectrum as video and written postings presence on the web may start to be based on the posters ability to pay or generate revenue for the website they’re posting on and not on the value the poster is bringing to the world with their post.

However, the reason I don’t think Net Neutrality is in too much jeopardy is because there is a confluence of the needs and wants of the populace and the needs and wants of some very powerful corporate financial interests.  As a matter of fact, I suspect that the primary reason that net neutrality has survived some past challenges, is more the result of corporate power than citizen activism.  I wish I could be confident that net neutrality is still here because of popular uproar in its defense, but it doesn’t seem like the interests of the plebs holds much sway in the halls and meeting places on capital hill. Just look at the corporate interests whose bottom lines would be squandered if net neutrality were to end and tolls would have to be paid: Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook and Netflix to name a few.

Well, you may be wondering, just who owns those switching stations if not any of the previous corporations named.  Once again, I could be wrong on this, so I wont name any names, but I believe it is the traditional phone company giants that own most of the ‘backbones’ of the internet, including those ‘switching stations’ I keep talking about.

One might wonder, how are the phone companies able to stay in business if they have to maintain and operate those switching stations if they don’t get to charge any tolls?  That I’m not sure of, but they seem to be doing alright under the current system of net neutrality.  What I believe is the case is that the big phone companies have been able to stay in business and do so quite nicely for many decades under a system of economics involving a relationship between private enterprise and the government known as ‘well regulated monopolies.’

Under certain circumstances, usually involving utilities, competition to provide a particular service is impracticable.  As a result, either the government itself provides the service or it all allows one business to provide the service as a monopoly.  But if a business provides the service such as a utility to the public, the business must be specially regulated so that it can’t take advantage of its advantageous position  as a monopoly and engage in such activities as price gouging.  As a result you have such government organizations as the FCC acting as an regulator and intermediary between the public and the private utility ensuring that both the public receives a reliable service at a reasonable cost while the provider is able to continue to pay the bills it needs to, to keep the service to the public running.

If the private service provider discovers that it needs more funds to pay for an essential part of that service — such as, for instance, a switching station, it can petition the regulatory body, such as the FCC, to allow them to tack on an extra fee to the bill of the consumer.  If the FCC finds the request reasonable, then the utility will be allowed to charge that fee.  Those of you who still have land line telephones or who remember those bill recall seeing a charge called something like the “federal access charge” — I think that is an example of one of those extra fees that the utility allowed the phone company to tack on to cover the costs of some of their physical infrastructure, whether it be the installation of telephone polls and lines out to remote parts of the country or some major upgrade of equipment.

Regardless there is ways of making sure utilities are adequately compensated to ensure continued reliable delivery of some necessary service.  And I think that indeed, especially in this era, the internet is a necessary service that should be regarded as a utility.  If those switching station owners were able to start charging tolls, that would effectively result in a legalized form of racketeering, where websites would be required to pay for their data to pass through the switching stations and be viewed on the web.

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