Earlier today, I came up with this analogy for the internet and net neutrality:

Let’s say UPS owns I-95, FedEx owns I-64, and Joe’s Shipping owns I-295 and 288. With net neutrality, anyone could drive on any interstate, including UPS trucks on 64, without additional cost. There is some negotiation between companies for the interchanges between 64, 95, and 295.

Without net neutrality, it becomes much more problematic. FedEx could charge a fee for UPS trucks on 64, and vice versa. Joe’s Shipping is such a small company, that they may not be able to afford new charges to make deliveries using 64 or 95; therefore, they end up needing to use back roads which would affect delivery speed.  They would lose to the companies who could take the faster routes and ultimately can’t compete with UPS and FedEx speeds. So, they fold and sell 295 and 288 to the other companies.

Perhaps you own a store along 64, but depend on a supplier from the DC area for your products. If the supplier is a small company, you or them would have to add the additional cost of shipping fees from both shipping companies to use both roads to get the delivery to you (i.e. UPS delivery fee plus the FedEx fee that UPS pays to use 64). But, if the supplier is already a big player, like Amazon or Walmart, they will likely have a second warehouse off 64, so they can still offer the lower FedEx-only shipping charges.  Therefore, small suppliers can't compete with already established large corporations.

And, what would be even worse: what if UPS and FedEx owned their own supply companies? Then perhaps you buy their products and shipping, because they charge anyone else extra to use either of their roads.

And that’s where we are today. Comcast and Verizon own large swaths of the internet and its interconnection, and they produce content (tv, movies, websites, etc). AT&T, which also owns portions of the internet, are trying to acquire Time Warner, including their production companies.

So, that should be terrifying. Even if they are transparent about how much they charge, it’s still not neutral. There aren’t enough back-channels to help all content get everywhere.

Now, I know you might be thinking "well, I pay for Ting, Google Fiber, [insert your good company here] internet, so they won't play favorites with content."  But, it's not just about them; the internet is a very deep and complex network.  At its base is a backbone controlled by multiple different companies, some that you may have never heard of.   Your web content may pass through a few different companies on top of the one that you actually pay for internet access.  Without net neutrality, any one of them along the way has the ability to stop or slow your data or charge a fee.

There are a few things you can try to test out the internet for yourself and see what companies you'll need to deal with to do rather mundane things online.  These are: traceroute and whois, and they're freely available in Terminal (MacOS), the Linux, and I believe Windows' Command Prompt.

Example Usage: My website

Let's take a look at getting to my site, robbiehott.com, from my in-law's house.  From the terminal, we will execute the command  traceroute robbiehott.com which will provide us with the following response:

traceroute to robbiehott.com (208.113.162.147), 100 hops max, 60 byte packets
1 gateway (10.0.0.1) 2.745 ms 3.198 ms 4.602 ms
2 96.120.18.205 (96.120.18.205) 25.460 ms 25.820 ms 26.449 ms
3 ge-3-1-sr01.palmyra.va.richmond.comcast.net (68.86.127.69) 25.772 ms 25.879 ms 27.830 ms
4 96.108.140.57 (96.108.140.57) 27.624 ms 27.535 ms 27.511 ms
5 ae-18-ar02.charlvilleco.va.richmond.comcast.net (68.86.173.213) 34.516 ms 34.505 ms 34.451 ms
6 be-21508-cr02.ashburn.va.ibone.comcast.net (68.86.91.53) 36.430 ms 20.432 ms 24.491 ms
7 hu-0-11-0-3-pe04.ashburn.va.ibone.comcast.net (68.86.88.78) 27.858 ms 27.145 ms 27.138 ms
8 50.242.151.190 (50.242.151.190) 33.523 ms 33.494 ms 32.625 ms
9 207.88.14.164.ptr.us.xo.net (207.88.14.164) 33.410 ms 36.523 ms 38.295 ms
10 207.88.14.181.ptr.us.xo.net (207.88.14.181) 37.674 ms 36.776 ms 39.484 ms
11 209.48.43.58 (209.48.43.58) 39.854 ms 40.663 ms 40.865 ms
12 ip-208-113-156-4.dreamhost.com (208.113.156.4) 26.594 ms 27.676 ms 28.477 ms
13 ip-208-113-156-14.dreamhost.com (208.113.156.14) 22.865 ms 23.073 ms 23.237 ms

This list shows all the steps between my laptop and my website.  You'll notice it's backwards; that is, these are the step to my website.  However, the website data will take roughly the same path back to my laptop.  Let's unpack this a little:

  • Step 1 is the gateway, i.e. the router in the house that my laptop connects to on wifi.  If your first entry starts with 10 or 192.168, then that is a local network and likely your router.
  • Steps 2-8 are all routers or computers at Comcast.  Steps 3 and 5-7 specifically tell us that they are comcast.net, and we see my request going from Palmyra to Charlottesville to Ashburn.
  • Steps 9-11 are all routers or computers at  MCI Communications (remember them?  well, they're actually Verizon now).  They don't advertise that fact here, but I'll show you how to get that information in a minute.
  • Steps 12-13 are computers at DreamHost, where my website resides.

How do I know that step 9 is Verizon?  Our second command will give us that information: by typing whois 207.88.14.164 into our terminal, we get a response from a registrar that details the owner of that particular address.  In this case, the important part is:

Organization: MCI Communications Services, Inc. d/b/a Verizon Business (MCICS)

In an age without net neutrality, my site could be slowed down by either Comcast or Verizon, even though my website is hosted at DreamHost.  You'll see images of "plans" that speculate paying extra for the "news websites" package or the "streaming video sites" package, but the actual case is more complicated than that.  My in-laws could pay Comcast extra for the "personal websites" package, but that won't affect Verizon's handling of my website data.

This is a simple example because it is likely that DreamHost pays Verizon for internet access and my in-laws pay Comcast, but there are cases in which the internet traffic will pass through an intermediary company.  I encourage you to go forth and test this out.  You'll find companies like Fox News that pay a company called Akamai, which provides those "warehouses" from my analogy--places on your network that may use only your internet provider to deliver faster responses.  You'll see companies like Level3 that you may have never heard of.

When you're done, and you're convinced something needs to be done, there are a few things you can do to try to influence what's happening at the FCC:

  1. Call your representatives in Congress and ask them to support net neutrality.  (Don't email, call.  Someone has to take your call.)
  2. Comment with the FCC.  They are supposed to take these into account when making the decision.
  3. Vote in 2018.