When you use the Internet, you may download data from many different sources. The principle of "net neutrality" states that your service provider should treat all that data the same, allowing content from any source to reach your computer without hindrance. A number of corporations have challenged this principle, arguing that service providers should be able to block or throttle connections in order to maintain service levels or to prioritize certain content sources. A decline in net neutrality could have many implications on the essential nature of the Internet.
The primary argument service providers make against net neutrality is that certain types of traffic have a negative impact on service quality and they should be able to shape that traffic to improve service or at least charge the content providers for carrying it. Online gaming, streaming video and peer-to-peer file sharing services produce much of the traffic that flows across the network, and as high-definition services become the norm, that share is always increasing. According to the Wall Street Journal, in 2007 YouTube’s streaming data volume could have broadcast all the original programming from the world’s television and radio content providers four times over.
Supporters of net neutrality see ISP arguments as a way to increase fees and squeeze more money out of their customers as well as content providers. Large service providers could demand fees from popular services such as Netflix or massively multiplayer online games, reducing their speeds if they refuse to play ball. Alternately, an ISP could target its customers with those fees instead, charging more for unrestricted access to certain types of services.
The "Walled Garden"
The ultimate result of a failure of net neutrality could be the so-called “walled garden” effect. Many large Internet service providers are part of corporations that own content providers, such as Time Warner’s connection to Warner Brothers and Comcast’s connection to NBC/Universal. If each ISP prioritizes its own affiliated content while restricting access to competing sources, it could create a situation where the Internet looks and behaves very different depending on which ISP you use. Critics argue this goes against the basic tenets of the global network, and maintaining free access to all data is better for users.
Innovation and Free Speech
A decline in net neutrality could also have a negative impact on free speech and innovation online. If corporations prioritize paid or affiliated content, those without backing or the ability to pay may not be able to reach an audience. Corporate-controlled service providers could influence free speech by effectively freezing out anyone with unpopular or counter-culture opinions.
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