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Most of us didn't know or care very much about net neutrality until it became front page news last week, when President Barack Obama declared his support for it and urged the Federal Communications Commission to support it. What is net neutrality and why should we care about it?

The Internet changed the world in ways its developers couldn't have imagined. People not connected to it, or who have slow connectivity, are greatly disadvantaged compared to those who are and who have high-speed connectivity. The World Wide Web is a tool for businesses, shopping, entertainment, getting information, managing our money, communicating with others and, quite literally, thousands of other uses. Net neutrality is the idea that Internet Service Providers should treat everything you receive or send over the Internet in the same way. It should make no difference whether you want to stream a movie from Netflix, download a book from the Gutenberg Project or perform a Google search. It basically says that ISPs may not block or discriminate against net traffic.

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Proponents of net neutrality argue that keeping the Web content-neutral is the best way to allow for innovation to continue. Without net neutrality, large companies would pay ISPs to deliver their content faster, making it harder for startup companies to compete. Making the Internet a "toll road" would create two different Webs, one for people who are willing and able to pay extra for content, the other for non-premium access. Without net neutrality, the Internet would be priced the way Comcast sells premium channels. If you want streaming video from Netflix, for example, you'd need to pay your ISP more. Conversely, if you didn't pay, you'd be getting both slower service and less of it. Think basic cable. Those parties favoring net neutrality include virtually every consumer organization, most content providers, and even the scientists who contributed heavily to the development of the Internet and the Web.

Opponents of net neutrality include most of the ISPs, including Comcast, Verizon, AT&T and Time Warner. They argue that content providers like Facebook and Netflix use so much bandwidth that other applications are squeezed out. They want to be able to charge more to providers who use more network capacity, in exchange for which, their content would be delivered at higher speed to users, who in turn would also pay more.

There are many problem with the tiered system that ISPs favor. For example, Comcast owns NBC. The structure they want would allow them to bundle content the same way they bundle TV channels into premium packages and "basic internet," making customers pay more for Facebook or streaming music than for linking to the library. They could just simply decide to block all content from, say, Spotify. Your ISP could slow down the speed at which content from other providers, Netflix and Hulu, for example, get delivered to your computer.

This isn't just a hypothetical situation. Last year, Comcast demanded that Netflix increase its payments to them. During negotiations, Comcast began squeezing Netflix by slowing down movies carried over their lines by about 25 percent. This resulted in customers experiencing frustrating delays downloading the films they had paid for, not to mention receiving service well below the high-speed rates they were also paying for. Netflix had little choice but to agree to millions of dollars in what many third parties described as extortion. Verizon also increased its fees to Netflix, but as recently as this July, they too were found to be throttling bandwidth for Netflix content. The point here is not that Netflix uses a lot of Internet capacity. It is that ISPs have a long, well-documented history of predatory pricing and anticompetitive practices. Small wonder then, that the ISPs line up as one to oppose even minimal regulation and pour millions of dollars into lobbying efforts to block net neutrality.

Probably the only way to assure both an open Internet and fair prices is to increase competition. In the current environment, it makes much more sense to treat Internet service like a public utility than like a cable TV company. But until we actually can let the free market function freely, we can expect ISPs to continue gouging the public.

Mitch Edelman writes from Finksburg. Email him at mjemath@gmail.com.

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