How Net Neutrality Actually Works (And How It Affects You)

If you have wasted too much time on the Internet, you may have heard of something called “Net Neutrality.” You may understand that net neutrality is some political issue regarding the Internet and how people get access to it but not much than that.

It is time to understand as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has made a major decision in favor of net neutrality. On Tuesday the Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) against Internet service providers (ISPs), declaring that current government regulations against ISPs will stay in place, paving the way for the FCC to regulate Internet companies like utilities.

But what does it mean to be in favor of net neutrality, and what makes this ruling so important? To understand that is to understand how the Internet actually works.

Former Senator Ted Stevens may have been mocked for calling the Internet “a series of tubes,” but that is a decent way to visualize the Internet. You have a pipeline to the Internet, and you get data through that pipeline to watch movies, play games, or use social media.

But the important thing when it comes to net neutrality is that I can watch any source I want. If I want to listen to Fox News or CNN or ABC, these will load at the same rate providing something is not wrong with the website itself. And regardless of which site I choose, the ISP has to load that website at the same rate.

ISPs are not particularly fond of that. Take Comcast, the biggest ISP in the United States. Comcast merged with NBC, and the two are in competition with Netflix as content providers. So without net neutrality, Comcast could slow the delivery of a Netflix show because it does not want to prioritize a rival.

In fact, Comcast could shut out Netflix altogether. It would be possible for Comcast to offer an agreement to consumers stating that they could only go to certain websites and that consumers would have to pay an additional fee for going to some other website. It would be comparable to how cable providers can restrict you from certain channels and charge more if you want to watch premium channels like HBO.

Those who support net neutrality like Gizmondo argue that “a world without net neutrality wouldn’t reward the most innovative website with the best services but rather the companies that are best at making deals or the companies with the most money.” They fear that big websites would be able to make deals with big ISPs, leaving smaller websites with fresh ideas stuck in the cold and inaccessible to customers.

But opponents of net neutrality argue that net neutrality actually stifles innovation. As libertarian blog Reason sees it, “net neutrality” is actually government regulation of Internet providers which prevents them or other smaller Internet services from finding new and better methods to provide the Internet to everyone.

So now that we have a grasp on the net neutrality issue, what does the recent court case mean?

In February 2015, the FCC moved to label ISPs as telecommunication companies instead of information services. This change meant that the FCC could impose new regulations on ISPs, which include ensuring net neutrality and demanding that Internet service is available to people with disabilities and in remote areas. The ISPs must also implement new regulations which would seek their users’ private information such as names and phone numbers.

ISPs have fought this change and took it to court, hoping that the Court of Appeals would strike some of the FCC’s opposed regulations down. But the Court of Appeals upheld the rules, which will ensure that the FCC regulations stay on the books.

ISP providers do not intend to take this quietly, and AT&T is making rumblings of taking this case all the way to the Supreme Court. But that case would likely be weaker. ISPs could argue that these new rules shut down their right to provide “speech” and would thus violate the First Amendment, but the Court of Appeals rejected that argument.

So how will this change things for the average Internet user? Not much for now. But if the Court of Appeals had chosen to rule in favor of the ISPs, things could have changed dramatically. It could have led to faster and more innovative service according to opponents of net neutrality. Or it could have led to a system where greedy corporations shut down the open-source Internet we know today and begin charging fees just to go a website not on their approved list.

Either way, this court ruling and the FCC’s decision could lead to changes down the road, as ISPs will end up being regulated like utility companies.