The End of Net Neutrality: What It Means For Science (and You)

What is net neutrality and why should you care about it? What happens to science and innovation without an open internet?

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #263

image of cables and lock symbolizing net neutrality

How would you describe the internet to someone from, say, the 18th century? Nearly 4 billion internet users, half of which are in Asia, access everyday what amounts to an accumulation of all of human knowledge to date. The internet, a network of interconnected smaller networks, allows that knowledge to be transferred across large distances quickly to whomever wants to access the information.

Net neutrality is the idea that all information traveling across the internet should be treated the same, no matter who the user is, what the content of that information is, what website hosts that information, or what platform or application is being used to access the information. Any such restrictions are completely human-constructed: the technology itself that makes the internet possible does not care what kind of information it sends zooming around the globe.

However, under the leadership of Chairman Ajit Pai, a former lawyer for Verizon, the Federal Communications Commission which sets the rules of net neutrality here in the US, is set to vote to end net neutrality in just a few weeks. Why would anyone want to end net neutrality? And what does this mean for science and for innovation?

How does the internet work?

To understand the importance of net neutrality, let’s first look at an overview of how the internet works. When you visit a website like quickanddirtytips.com, your computer (or phone or tablet) sends a request to connect to that site through your personal connection to the internet to your internet service provider, or ISP. Your ISP then sends along your request to another server and then another and possibly another until it reaches a domain name server that recognizes the name of the website you are trying to reach. Domain name servers act like address books or virtual operators, connecting users with the websites they seek.

Once the request reaches the proper server that hosts the data files for quickanddirtytips.com, the information sought by the user is divided up into packets and sent back over the network. Those packets do not always have to travel the same route allowing them to maneuver around clogged or slow areas of the network and get to you, the user, most efficiently. However, to finally reach you, they all must pass through your ISP. Your device then assembles the packets back together like pieces of a puzzle to display the website for you.  

You may have noticed that even in this very simplified description, your ISP is the key to your connection to your internet as it has ultimate control over what information you can access and how fast you can access it.

What happens to the internet without net neutrality?

Under the framework of net neutrality, your ISP, whether it’s Comcast, Verizon, or AT&T, is required to treat all internet content equally. Without net neutrality, your ISP can control what content you are allowed to see. They can charge you as the user extra fees to access certain sites or they can require that those hosting the websites pay more money so their content is not slowed or blocked entirely from reaching users. So no matter how much money you pay, you may still not be able to efficiently access the sites you choose.


About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.

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