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

The end result is that internet users are not the ones deciding which websites and webtools are successful; the ISPs decide. For example, Comcast could slow down access to Netflix so much that users would be forced to instead use the streaming service Xfinity owned by Comcast. Even worse, ISPs could decide to block access to websites or even refuse to deliver email that express dissenting viewpoints. Free Press has documented a timeline of net neutrality violations for more examples.

If ISPs are allowed to charge users varying amounts of money to access different websites, we could end up with a tiered pricing similar to cable television. Users would pay a base fee of say $50 to connect to the internet but would then have to pay $5 more per month to access search engines like Google, Yahoo, or Bing, then another $5 more per month to access social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, and then another $10 per month for certain news sites. And if you want to access Hulu or Netflix or Amazon for video streaming? That’ll be another $10. For a real-life example of how this pricing can look, check out the internet service provider Meo which is already doing this in Portugal.

What does the end of net neutrality mean for science & innovation?

Proponents of ending net neutrality argue that regulating ISPs (by requiring that they treat all information on the internet equally) amounts to “micromanagement” and prevents internet companies from investing in improvements for their networks. It is certainly true that as we become increasingly bandwidth-intensive in our use of the internet, we will need to look for costly expansions of our infrastructure to make those connections possible. But even the internet companies themselves admit that net neutrality has not hurt their self-investment.

Without net neutrality, libraries and schools that do not have extra cash could get slower internet service.

We likely have far more to lose in the way of technological innovation without net neutrality. Do you have a great idea for a new app? You may have to compete monetarily with established internet powerhouses like Facebook for users to access your app whether or not your design is the best. Startups and small businesses will likewise have a harder time getting their information to potential users if they don’t have the money to put themselves on the same playing field as larger companies. Under the framework of net neutrality, the search engine provided by Google was able to rise in popularity as users were given the choice and many preferred it to Yahoo.

Without net neutrality, libraries and schools that do not have extra cash could get slower internet service. If such favored access had been in place in the early years of Facebook, the social media giant may not exist today as it was originally run from a college campus. Further, ISPs could pick and choose which brands of phones or computers will receive faster service, meaning that you won’t get to pick which gadgets or personal assistants you want to use. Without a consumer-driven market, technology companies will have little motivation to innovate and develop new products.   

Without net neutrality, science may also suffer. Providing results of scientific research, research that is often funded by federal grants, to the public relies on fair access to the internet. At the heart of the scientific method is drawing a conclusion after taking in all available information. If ISPs are not required to treat all websites and information equally, they could choose to allow access only to websites that present one side of a story or hide any results they deem negative. ISPs could be susceptible to pressure to hide information on behalf of companies offering large sums of money or even the government.

Sites like the Public Library of Science, a nonprofit publisher of scientific results, have come out in strong support of maintaining net neutrality. Amazon, Netflix, Google, Etsy, Vimeo, Reddit, and NPR all support net neutrality. The United Nations recognizes restricting access to the internet as a violation of human rights. The vast majority of US citizens are also in favor of a free and open internet: 73% of Republicans, 80% of Democrats and 76% of Independents are in favor of keeping the FCC’s Open Internet rules.

Despite this overwhelming support for net neutrality, the FCC is expected to vote to end it on December 14th. If you’d like to have your voice heard on this issue and its potential impact on science and innovation and even sites like this one, you can call the FCC or call your representatives.

Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Everyday Einstein’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Everyday Einstein on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com.

Image of Net Neutrality Lock © Shutterstock


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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