When it comes to net neutrality, we at DreamHost say, “Let freedom ring!”
The principle of the open internet — that all web traffic and content should be treated equally, no matter what — has been debated and challenged for decades. Once offered federal protection, this foundational internet standard, which shapes how you use, consume, and produce content online, now sits in the government’s crosshairs.
DreamHost is taking a stand for freedom of speech and the open internet. Here’s our guide to what net neutrality is, why everyone who’s ever opened a web browser should care, what it means for your website, and most importantly, how you can join the fight.
What Is Net Neutrality?
It’s a dry, technical-sounding phrase for an idea that directly impacts anyone with an internet connection. Unless you’ve been avoiding the news lately (and these days, who can blame you?), the term probably at least sounds familiar.
Net neutrality, sometimes called the open internet, is the idea that any and all traffic on the internet is treated equally and fairly; it gets from its source to its destination as quickly and as efficiently as possible. Every website, from Netflix to your WordPress site, loads at the same speed and quality.
Sounds simple, right?
It almost feels weird to define such a basic status-quo principle that governs our day-to-day browsing. Net neutrality is how the internet has operated from the beginning. In February 2015 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), then led by Obama-appointed Tom Wheeler, passed regulations to legally protect the principles of net neutrality.
It’s easy to take for granted that the internet will always be free and open. But beware: some people want to change that.
What Could Happen If Net Neutrality Isn’t Regulated?
Nothing good. Most of us get our internet from a big telecom cable company, like Time Warner or Comcast, and/or a mobile provider, like Sprint or AT&T. These companies are called internet service providers (ISPs), and because it costs a lot of money to create the infrastructure to provide internet access, there aren’t very many of them.
These ISPs own the “pipes” of the internet, and we pay to use them — we just as we expect the utility company to stay out of our drinking water, we hope ISPs won’t meddle with whatever flows through those tubes delivering the internet.
“The death of net neutrality,” explains Brett Dunst, DreamHost VP of corporate communications, “would allow for the proliferation of internet ‘fast lanes,’ where ISPs could charge content providers more to ensure that their websites load more quickly than others. ISPs could even build artificial service tiers that guarantee faster access to specific websites, passing along a completely manufactured benefit to consumers in the form of increased monthly rates. ”
So without laws protecting net neutrality, ISPs looking to maximize profits could charge a premium for internet “fast lanes”— creating an uneven playing field favoring big content providers with deep pockets.
Current net neutrality protections also prevent telecoms from giving their own services preferential treatment over internet competitors by, for example, slowing down Skype or Google Phone.
Who Are the Players in This Game?
A number of technologists and almost every ISP oppose current net neutrality regulations, as do a number of conservative politicians — including the President of the United States and the man he appointed to chair the FCC, which currently oversees net neutrality regulations. (Don’t worry, we’ll chat a bit more about the FCC chair in a bit).
And who supports net neutrality regulations? Basically everyone else: content providers such as Netflix and Google, tech companies like DreamHost, and many legislators. The general public, as well, has shown enormous support for the open internet, with millions having filed public comments with the FCC backing net neutrality.
Why Would Anyone Challenge Net Neutrality?
- Some opponents say that net neutrality protections are harmful to business and could stifle investment, innovation, and flexibility among ISPs.
- Others — especially some in Congress and the FCC — argue that these protections are just another example of big government regulations interfering with the free market.
- Some critics have argued that net neutrality is a gateway to excessive internet regulation.
- Another concern: net neutrality could slow development of infrastructure, which can cost billions of dollars to build, by making networks less profitable.
- Some skeptics doubt that the free market will naturally discourage ISPs from interfering with net neutrality.
But the Critics Have It Wrong — and Here’s Why
Net neutrality is not just another pesky government regulation. It is a protection of free speech and free enterprise; it enables and ensures innovation rather than stifling it. There’s little evidence that net neutrality regulations have hampered investment in ISPs; several telecom executives are even on the record saying that net neutrality hasn’t affected their investments.
Without regulation, telecom companies would be free to tamper with competition for content — potentially prioritizing their own — and, even scarier, affect the dissemination of political and social views. And it’s not likely that free market competition could effectively reign in this behavior because most people only have two or three options for broadband carriers — at most.
Net neutrality is inherently pro-business and entrepreneurship. It lowers barriers and creates a startup-friendly environment, without which household names like Netflix, Google, Skype, Twitter, and more wouldn’t exist. “Net neutrality levels the competitive playing field and gives everyone on the internet an equal chance at success,” Dunst says.
Take Facebook, for example. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t have to ask Comcast to add his new social media site to its network. Nor did he have to pay a premium fee to compete with Friendster or MySpace for bandwidth. As soon as Zuckerberg published his website, it was available and easily accessible to any computer in the world with an internet connection — thanks to net neutrality.
Even Net Neutrality Has an Origin Story
It’s time for some quick background. Sit back and try not to zone out — having a firm grasp on net neutrality’s history will better help you understand the threats it is facing today.
First, net neutrality is not a new concept. The government had a hand in keeping networks open long before the term was coined by a professor in 2003. In the 1970s and ’80s, the FCC imposed regulations on phone companies to prevent them from impairing competition in computer networking by, for example, giving customers the right to use modems on their phone lines.
That’s right, you can thank the government for the busy tones back in the ’90s.
Fast forward to 2005. The Bush-era FCC adopted four policy-guiding principles — more guidelines than actual rules, ahem — to protect competition on the open internet. However, these principles weren’t binding, and the FCC’s legal standing to protect net neutrality remained unclear as some ISPs began anti-open internet practices.
Enter President Obama, a long-time supporter of net neutrality. In 2010 Obama-appointed FCC chair Julius Genachowski drafted regulations that required ISPs to be more transparent and prohibited them from blocking online content. In a case brought by Verizon, a 2014 federal court decision struck down these regulations as an FCC power overreach. Genachowski stepped down, and Obama replaced him with Tom Wheeler, who was a big fan of consumer protections.
After his appointment, Wheeler outlined his ideas for how the FCC could implement net neutrality — and pleased no one. The Republicans argued that his ideas went too far; and the Democrats, tech companies (including DreamHost), and the masses urged him to come up with something stronger.
The idea gained traction when Obama himself also urged stricter network neutrality regulations. The pressure mounted, and finally, the FCC’s Democratic majority provided protections for network neutrality in February 2015.
What Do the Current Net Neutrality Regulations Do?
The 2015 regulations made net neutrality an imperative across all internet providers. Under these protections, ISPs are not permitted to slow down internet service for any reason other than network management. The regulations also prohibit broadband companies from blocking legal websites or charging for faster delivery of content, ensuring that all internet content, from any content provider, will be treated equally.
In essence, net neutrality became the law of the land.
To make this happen, the FCC reclassified broadband as a public utility, rather than an information service, giving them greater power to oversee and impose regulations. The FCC net neutrality regulations were a major victory for the open internet.
But the Net Neutrality Fight Is Far From Over
In fact, today net neutrality stands right on the edge of extinction.
“It was a big deal when net neutrality became law,” Dunst says. “But then we got a new FCC chairman with his own unique ideas about what’s best for consumers.”
President Trump has never been a fan of net neutrality regulations. His election last year all but guaranteed their demise, which was solidified three months ago when Trump appointed Ajit Pai as FCC chair. Pai is a former lawyer for Verizon — and one of the two FCC commissioners who voted against reclassification in 2015.
“Chairman Pai has been an outspoken opponent of net neutrality since long before his appointment to the FCC,” Dunst explains. “He felt that classifying ISPs as common carriers under Title II was a clear care of regulatory overreach; he didn’t agree that the FCC should be in the position of having to monitor or regulate internet competition.”
Under Pai’s leadership, the FCC members voted in May to begin the process of undoing the 2015 net neutrality rules in favor of more hands-off regulations — ones that would leave ISPs free to meddle with how our internet content is delivered.
The Current Rules Aren’t Perfect as They Stand
The 2015 guidelines permit a glaring and dangerous loophole called zero rating.
“Zero rating allows service providers to leverage their data plans to launch competitive services with an unfair advantage,” Dunst says. “A provider like Comcast can launch its own video streaming service to compete with Netflix, which it has done with Xfinity Stream, and simply exempt traffic from its own streaming service from counting toward a subscriber’s monthly Comcast data caps. It un-levels the playing field and is completely at odds with both the spirit and intent of the FCC’s original net neutrality order.”
Sneaky, right? But that’s the essence of zero rating. “It’s great for Comcast,” Dunst adds, “but if you wanted to start a competitive video streaming service yourself, you’d have a tough time of it. Netflix may remain popular on the strength of its brand alone, but Comcast customers are incentivized to use Comcast’s own service and may even cancel their Netflix subscriptions as a result. Any type of competitive startup in the video streaming space wouldn’t stand a chance. That’s clearly anti-competitive and a threat to entrepreneurial innovation.”
There have been some efforts to close this loophole, but recently the FCC dropped its investigation into the practice of zero rating. And, honestly, the outcry over zero rating has taken a backseat to the threat posed by the current FCC’s attack on the basic principle of net neutrality.
So What Happens Next?
In May 2017 the FCC voted to review the existing regulations — with the intent of undoing the reclassification of ISPs and removing net neutrality protections that prevent ISPs from charging more to deliver high-bandwidth content. This review period will likely lead to a new set of regulations, which would require another vote by the FCC.
It also triggered a 90-day review period that includes accepting comments and opinions from the public. That clock runs out in August, and later this year, the FCC members will cast a final vote determining the future of net neutrality. It is likely that any changes to the current laws will be challenged in court.
Why Should Website Owners Be Concerned About Net Neutrality?
Because they’ve got one of the biggest stakes in the game. As a website owner, the open internet is your platform for sharing your passion, spreading your ideas, even earning your livelihood. And all that is under attack.
If you own an online shop, you want your site to reach your customers as quickly as Amazon.com; you don’t want to be throttled just because you are not willing — or able — to pay a monthly fee to be as accessible as Amazon and other big sites.
“Our customers are dreamers,” Dunst says. “They are building websites and apps that they want to be successful, and they want to be accessible to the widest audience possible. We want them to have the same shot at success that any of the larger established players do, and the loss of net neutrality would threaten their ability to do that.”
DreamHost’s Non-Neutral Stance — and What We’ve Done About It
In case you couldn’t tell, we are big fans of net neutrality over here. It was key to the internet’s inception and will always be essential to its continued growth and survival.
“There’s no benefit to prioritizing one type of legal content over another,” Dunst says. “All internet traffic should be treated equally and fairly in the same way that people should be treated equally and fairly. The internet is a great equalizer; it’s a democratizing platform for user-generated content.”
You better believe we haven’t been sitting pretty as government and other critics ready net neutrality for the chopping block. “We’ve made a number of public statements in support of net neutrality,” Dunst says. “We’ve signed on anytime there’ve been efforts to raise awareness of the issue or of an impending vote, adding our voice to a growing chorus of internet companies with the rights of our users at the core of our concerns.”
We pledge to fight for the protections and regulations that safeguard the future of the open internet. Last year DreamHost co-signed a letter to the FCC encouraging them to hold open hearings on zero rating’s legality. We will continue to stand up within our industry and fight any attempts to remove net neutrality protections granted by the FCC’s 2015 ruling.
Most recently, DreamHost signed on alongside other tech companies to support the Net Neutrality Day of Action, coming up on July 12, one month before the FCC’s 90-day review period runs out. “It’s an industry effort to get people to write to FCC and Congress before the FCC stops collecting public commentary as it considers the future of net neutrality,” Dunst says.
Suit Up to Keep the Internet Free — And Weird
So what you can do about the impending demise of net neutrality?
Option A: Move to Canada. For real. Net neutrality just became the law of the land up north, and we applaud (and envy) the Canadian government’s commitment to open internet and free speech. Looks like America doesn’t corner the market in those arenas.
If a relocation isn’t on the docket, move on to Option B: Take a stand. Tell the FCC how you feel about net neutrality — especially what it means to you as a website owner.
“The most we can really do here is to write the FCC and to Congress,” Dunst says. “The ultimate decision lies with the FCC, but the more people who comment, the better.”
In true bureaucratic fashion, the FCC has hidden the comment form deep within the matrix of its website. But you can find a direct link at Battle for the Net, a coalition supported by DreamHost and basically every other internet-based company out there.
The last time the FCC called for public comments (when it was considering reclassification and tightening net neutrality regulations) more than 4 million people responded. Poetically, the swell in traffic crashed the FCC’s website.
Let’s break their internet again — before the FCC can slow ours way, way down.
—Reporting by Sara Atwood