Issue #4: Net Neutrality and “A Series of Tubes”

We explain the importance of net neutrality through the only way we know how, by explaining the Internet as if it were a “series of tubes.”



In the spectrum of US history, the senate has had their fair share of memorable moments. Some inspiring and others, not so much. Then there are those moments during a Senate hearing that live in infamy. Then-Republican Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska explaining the Internet and why we should be opposing net neutrality is one of those moments.



While then-Sen. Stevens’ grasp of the Internet could be described as tenuous at best, most who have shown opposition against net neutrality make similar arguments in that the current regulations make the Internet inefficient and burdensome.


The debate over net neutrality had sparked up again recently when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) head, Ajit Pai, announced new rules that would rollback many net neutrality regulations that the Obama administration had pushed for; specifically lifting restrictions on Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block or throttle content its users look to access. This, as you may have guessed, put net neutrality advocates into a frenzy. Many tech companies and net neutrality advocates worry the new rules will be the beginning of the end for a free-and-open Internet, which many claim has made the Internet an ecosystem of innovation and free ideas.


While any changes to net neutrality protections have always been an important issue – basically anyone with an Internet connection would be affected by the decision – yet the specifics regarding net neutrality can be confusing. So in honor of Stevens’ explanation of net neutrality in the Senate years ago, we explain net neutrality the best we know how; as if the Internet were a “series of tubes.” Hey, if the analogy was good enough for the guy in charge of regulating the Internet – yet really!! – we figured it was good enough for us.



Looking at the Internet (Explained as If It Were a Series of Tubes)


As you read this article right now, imagine your computer, cell phone, or tablet having a series of pneumatic tubes coming from it. (Yeah, we know, this sounds absurd, but just bear with us.) Ok, now that you’re picturing all these tubes coming from your electronic device, now imagine each of these tubes are a portal connecting you to the sea of content online. One tube going to Google, one tube going to Amazon, another tube going to Facebook, and even one tube coming here. Basically for every website or Internet service (ie Netflix, PayPal, Amazon, ect) that you use, imagine there is a pneumatic tube sending content back-and-forth. That right there is a basic description of what the Internet essentially is: a series of tubes.


Now imagine these tubes, that you connect to websites or online services, are actually not built by you, but provided by your Internet Service Provider (or ISP). For most of us, we pay these ISPs – whether that be Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, Mediacom, or whoever – to use their network of tubes to connect to various websites and online services.


In the US, this is how millions of Americans access the Internet on a daily basis.



Looking at Net Neutrality (Explained as If It Were a Series of Tubes)


Net neutrality’s core idea is basically this: that any tube from the infinite number of tubes that you pay your ISP each month to use, can’t be slowed down or blocked, just because your ISP would rather you use a particular set of tubes over ones that you prefer.


So for example, say if you like using the Netflix tube to watch movies, but your ISP provider – let’s say in this hypothetical situation AT&T – would rather you use this other video watching tube to watch movies, because they own that other video watching service and not Netflix. Now under current governmental regulations, AT&T can’t slowdown the Netflix tube or block your use of that Netflix tube, if you pay them to use their series of tubes! In other words, if you pay a monthly fee to AT&T to use their network, they have to allow you access to their entire network and treat all connections in that network equally, no matter what website or service you visit. Even if that means you’d rather use the Netflix tube and not the other movie watching tube that AT&T prefers.


In a very basic nutshell, that’s how net neutrality works and it’s the current backbone to how regulatory bodies like the FCC govern Internet access in the US. Anytime an ISP provider impedes Internet access for their users, for whatever reason, they are then not complying with government regulations under the current bylaws.



How Opponents Look at Net Neutrality (Explained as If It Were a Series of Tubes)


ISPs (Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, ect) claim that their ability to dictate how fast their series of tubes should go are holding them back from modernizing their tube-like infrastructure (ie their networks). Their argument essentially comes down to that since people are using their series of tubes to go online, the ISPs should have complete say in how their networks are run. That means ISPs want to be able to prioritize some tubes over others so, as they claim, to optimize their networks better.


This of course causes a huge problem with proponents of net neutrality, who feel that all tubes in the series should be given equal priority. That means no tube in the series should be slowed down or blocked, for whatever reason, by the ISPs. As supporters of net neutrality claim, this makes situations like the ISP preferring one tube over another impossible, allowing the Internet to be a free expression of ideas that fosters innovation.



What FCC Head Ajit Pai Wants to Do with Net Neutrality (Explained as If It Were a Series of Tubes)


Recently, Ajit Pai – President Trump’s pick to head the FCC – had unveiled their new plan that would roll back the current net neutrality regulations that gives ISPs more power in how they run their networks (ie their series of tubes). Pai’s proposed regulations would give ISPs the power to block websites (ie particular tubes) that they don’t like, as well as charge web companies for speedier delivery of their product (ie make some tubes go faster than others). Under Pai’s new rules, the example earlier where AT&T could potentially slowdown the tube that brings you Netflix over the video service tube that they would prefer you to use, suddenly becomes a reality! While these new proposed regulations would give ISPs more say in how they control their respective series of tubes, Pai and supporters of these new regulations insist that there are provisions in place to make sure ISPs won’t abuse their newly given power.


For one, the new regulations insist that if an ISP were to slowdown or block a specific tube in their network, they would have to let their consumers know in an “easy and notifiable way.” As critics are quick to point out, under the language of the new rules, these ISP notifications could be akin to User Agreements that many tech companies use, in which most people never read due to the amount of legal jargon within. After all, how many of us actually read our iTunes User Agreement? The smart bet would be almost nobody.


As of this writing, the FCC vote over the new regulations are scheduled to be taken place on December 14th. In all likelihood, it’s almost certain that the new regulations should pass with three of the five FCC panel being in favor of ending current net neutrality regulations. With the outcome of the vote looking to be inevitable, many supporters of net neutrality are starting to write-up legal arguments in hopes to challenge the new FCC ruling in court, which easily could take years. In theory, legal debate over the new rules could even spill over to the next presidential administration if challenged enough. So much like the late-Ted Stevens’ explanation of the Internet being a “series of tubes”, the debate over net neutrality looks to not be going anywhere, anytime soon.



(Photo Credit: Google Images)


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