The requirements for accessing the Internet are minimal: having a device capable of viewing the information and a service to provide you access to the World Wide Web (an ISP-Internet service provider). The world's knowledge is essentially at your fingertips - theoretically, at least.
But what if your ISP limited what you could and could not see on the Web? It sounds like a clear violation of the freedoms upon which our nation was founded. But today, there are restrictions being placed on paying customers who are engaging in completely legal activities.
The issue of whether or not the Internet should be "open" and "free" (in the access sense, not financially) is known as net neutrality. Today, more than ever before, it's becoming a central issue.
Generally, restrictions placed on customers are of the legal sense: You cannot download illegal material, send harmful viruses into the network, etc. Others are based on technological limitations - if you read your ISP's terms of service, there most likely is a clause stating that they have the right to limit your usage if you clog up their lines with huge amounts of bandwidth, levels of use which most legal activities will not approach.
For the most part, at least in the residential ISP niche, net neutrality has not been a fairly large issue. But then came a piece of technology which changed the way the Internet was accessed: the smartphone. Wireless providers, such as AT&T and Verizon, have vast networks around the country, providing you with the ability to make phone calls and send text messages almost anywhere. Voice and text messages take up relatively little data (especially since voice is not being used constantly) and thus the networks are able to handle the bandwidth.
But with Blackberries allowing businessmen to check their portfolios every hour and iPhones allowing college students to watch YouTube during class, the wireless networks are facing massive strain on an insufficient infrastructure. And therefore, the terms of service become more and more restrictive.
Many of you are probably paying for an "unlimited" data plan with your phone. But check your contract - it's not really unlimited.
When customers are limited on what they can and can't do on their pricey handhelds, companies and the government start to notice. And the debate over net neutrality took off this summer when a clash broke out between some names you're definitely familiar with: Google, Apple, and AT&T.Google runs a service called Google Voice, which allows its consumers to make relatively cheap phone calls by using Google's servers as a go-between. It's completely legal and still requires the use of your precious monthly minutes and data.
This July, Google attempted to bring its Voice technology to the archetypal smartphone: Apple's iPhone. The result? An immediate rejection, with Apple's execs citing various ridiculous reasons (i.e. it could confuse users. Seriously?). AT&T, being the sole wireless provider for the iPhone, was also brought into the mix as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) demanded answers over consumers' outrage.
Despite the technological arguments - "our network cannot handle the strain" - and legal concerns - "it's in the terms of service" - with which each company responded to the FCC, the ethical issue of net neutrality definitely played a role and was brought up by tech pundits everywhere. iPhone users are already paying high monthly costs for Apple's premium handheld and access to AT&T's wireless internet network; can the whims of one company limit the extent of the Internet for its paying customers? Is it the customer's fault for wanting to maximize their benefit? Is it the wireless carrier's fault for not providing sufficient infrastructure to handle the data which they sell at such high prices? Is it Google's fault for coming up with a useful, convenient, cheaper way to reach out to its customers?
The issue of net neutrality has been around ever since the Internet was born, but this is the first time it has received front-page treatment. Another big event in the wireless world occurred this summer as well, opening up more ground for the net neutrality argument: the decommissioning of the analog TV spectrum as the country went digital in June. The bands at which these transmissions used to run became available at an FCC auction, and all of the major internet providers, wireless carriers and even major online businesses such as Google fought for a piece of the pie. It would be a chance to gain precious access to the limited radio waves, capable of transmitting vast amounts of data over large areas. It would be a gold mine for any service provider. But fears of a monopoly became relevant: If one carrier gained control of this space, how would they treat their customers?
Google fought for net neutrality and successfully made a deal with the FCC, requiring that the winner of the auction enforce the freedom for its customers to "use the wireless device of their choice and download whatever software they want." It seemed like a win for net neutrality proponents and a step in the right direction.
The future of the Internet really depends on how this net neutrality battle concludes. If the likes of innovative companies such as Google and groups such as the Open Internet Coalition win, we will see the Internet open up as it really should. We have the technology now to present high quality, interactive information online and no company should strive to prevent these steps forward.
But if companies like AT&T and Apple are unable to get their infrastructure up to par and continue to limit consumers, there could be a long battle ahead to regain freedom in the radiowave-filled skies.