Neutrality is Overrated
It's frightening how misunderstood the issue of net neutrality is right now. I'd like to place the blame on Netflix CEO Reed Hastings for this mess. He co-opted the term as part of his PR campaign against Comcast, Verizon, and other ISPs to build public and social media support for his company. Truth is, streaming video services like Netflix have basically broken the internet, and they're all just fighting over who's going to pay to fix it. It'll be us, the consumers, in the end regardless, but they're still fighting over who's keeping the bigger share of our money.

So, while Netflix and Comcast continue their squabbles before the FCC, T-Mobile comes out and pretty blatantly pisses all over net neutrality... and everyone cheers.

You look confused now, so let's go back and go over the basics. Net neutrality is the principle that all internet traffic is created equal. ISPs shouldn't be able to discriminate against or give preferential treatment to content based on where it's coming from or who's providing it. Strictly speaking this is a dumb idea; you probably want traffic from Skype or Titanfall to not be held up by traffic from Gmail or Instagram. Network administrators call this QoS (quality of service) management, and if you have a decent router you're probably doing the same thing on your network at home. In a broader, more principled sense, it means that under ideal network conditions you shouldn't have any more trouble watching YouTube videos as you would something from Vimeo or Dailymotion or XHamster (don't act like you don't know what that last one is). It also means that Pirate Bay should load just as easily as Facebook, and that bittorrent traffic shouldn't be blocked because your ISP might think you're pirating something (many game update clients use bittorrent these days).

Net neutrality is important in theory because it keeps the playing field of content provision level. If a larger company like YouTube could afford to pay off one or more ISPs for priority access on their network, it could provide an unfair advantage over competing video sites like Dailymotion, for example.

So, T-Mobile's new music streaming plan, in which music streamed from a list of services including Pandora, Spotify, and iTunes Radio will not count against a user's data allowance, is definitely a breach of the net neutrality principle. Other "unapproved" music streaming services, like my personal favorite Google Play Music, are at a disadvantage because they can quickly eat away at the skimpy data allowances most cell phone plans in the U.S. come with.

And yet, there's no outrage. No torches, no pitchforks, no Twitter hashtag campaigns, nothing but a few columnists sounding the alarm. Consumers care far less about net neutrality, it seems, than getting unlimited Spotify and Pandora. So, why bother fighting for it?

Let's go back to an earlier example. Let's say Comcast and Netflix come to an agreement where you'll be able to stream Netflix through a prioritized traffic "fast lane", practically guaranteeing that you'll never have to worry about Orange is the New Black buffering while watching it in HD. Oh yeah, and it won't count against that theoretical 300 GB data limit either. It's another pretty clear net neutrality violation, but who cares, you've got unlimited Netflix with no buffering. That's what all this FCC drama is all about anyway, right? You've won!

The lesson I'm seeing here is that as long as consumers can get the content they want without hassle, the principles behind net neutrality mean next to nothing. This is a dangerous line of thinking, and I guarantee that one day soon, if this lesson is not learned, we're all going to pay for it. One way or another.
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