Net Neutrality is one of the most important issues for today's computer user to understand.

The eventual outcome of Net Neutrality might be a big, virtual wall between rich and poor. And apathy on our part will give people who only pretend to understand the technology free rein to make decisions which will benefit the upper class at the expense of everybody else.

What is Net Neutrality? It's the idea that the Internet should be the same for everybody on it, no matter who they are. The only restriction placed on Net use right now is the type of connection: one can buy better speeds, so in that way wealth determines the quality of Internet, but it's becoming less and less of a divide as high-bandwidth connections become cheaper.

The alternative is to have different levels of service for different people, depending on what they pay for. With Net Neutrality gone, you could have a system where your ISP offers you two different sorts of Internet connections, basic and premium. If you could afford premium, your packets would get priority over the proles' packets, and you'd see a better Internet. In the worst-case scenario, there would be entirely different content for the premium users.

Another part of ending neutrality is prioritizing certain data over others. So if your ISP has decided that their services (such as VoIP, digital movies, etc) are more important than other high-bandwidth services (such as peer-to-peer networks, gaming, or some third-party audiovisual chat service) you're going to see major slowdowns during peak hours. Part of how they'll arrange this is to have a fee that businesses and software developers must pay to have their data prioritized. So big companies with deep pockets win, and local business and small shareware developers get held over a log.

How does all of this work, technically? Well, data are constantly flying around the world, both through wires and the ether. Routers (the devices that send a packet to the next router, which sends it to the next, until it gets to your computer) need to make decisions about which packets go in which order, since some have to go farther than others: smart decisions on the router's part provide an apparent speedup. It's an enormously difficult problem; routing everything around just right is NP-complete, meaning it's as complex as an algorithm can be.

A packet is a chunk of data, with some extra header and footer fields attached to it. These fields specify where it's going, where it's coming from, whether it's a special packet or just data, and information about priority. In this context, priority means whether on-time delivery is crucial. So a UDP packet from a video chat needs to get to its destination quickly, but it's usually OK if it's dropped (since more audiovisual information is on its way, in real time), whereas a TCP packet containing part of a download doesn't have the necessity that real-time video presents, but it needs to be checked to make sure it does eventually get through.

So what happens if a new restriction is placed on the system, that specifies that if there are limited slots available for sending packets, people paying for better service get prioritized? It means that people with the resources get better Internet connections, but in a more insidious way than simply having more bandwidth: they get better speeds at the direct expense of others. Now imagine that there are five levels of service, and consumers can only afford the lower tiers. The disconnect between the very wealthy and the simply average becomes enormous.

What makes it even worse is that during high-demand situations, the divide grows. If there are already issues with packets being lost, and needing to be resent, having yours continually sent to the back of the queue could potentially mean that programs will perform poorly (timing out, for example), and the Internet becomes an unpleasant place for the poor to be.

The justification for abolishing Net Neutrality is that the Internet-savvy are using much more bandwidth than everybody else. Filesharing, digital media streaming, audio/video chat, gaming: these require quite a bit of bandwidth, and some people see this as an opportunity to — wait for it — make money. Make them pay! We can't tax the wealthy on their salaries, or estates, or luxury purchases (since they're funding our campaigns), so we'll tax the nerds! Nobody listens to nerds.

Defenders of ending neutrality will tell you about how the imbalance in bandwidth usage cripples the Internet. These are usually the people who refer to the Internets in plural, or talk about using Outlook to send somebody an Internet, or who tell you that the Internet is a series of tubes. They are rarely systems administrators, computer scientists, or graph theoreticians. Unfortunately, many are in politics, and are influential. If we don't fight it, they will win.

If you're still asking yourself why all of this is bad, remember that the Internet is the greatest democratizing force that the world has ever seen. (Even better than conquering small countries full of brown-skinned people and forcing democracy on them!) Everybody on the Internet — and these days, that means just about anybody in the developed world who wants to be — has a voice. Not necessarily an equal voice, but a voice limited mostly by skill and intellect, and not money. With Net Neutrality gone, the Internet becomes the playground of the wealthy, and the little guy gets screwed.

The Internet is for everybody. Let's keep it that way.

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