Attention Beck and Limbaugh: This is what net neutrality is about

Given how Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh have consistently fearmongered about net neutrality -- essentially describing it as a government plot to control what you see on the Internet -- it's clear they have no idea what they're talking about. So maybe they need to read up on the current dispute between Comcast and Level 3, one of the nation's biggest Internet backbone companies, to learn what net neutrality is actually about.

First, let's recap just some of the unhinged rhetoric from Beck and Limbaugh to illustrate what net neutrality is not about:

  • On November 23, Limbaugh said that net neutrality “limit[s] the amount of conservatism that you will be able to find on the Internet.”
  • On November 22, Beck claimed the net neutrality rules are “basically a Fairness Doctrine for the Internet” and would allow the government to “control what you see on the Internet.”
  • On May 18, Limbaugh claimed that President Obama, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, and Cass Sunstein want “forced neutrality” to make sure you're reading their “garbage.”
  • On May 10, Beck said that the FCC is “marching forward” with net neutrality plans, suggests it's putting a “boot on your throat”
  • On May 6, Beck stated of net neutrality: “This will control every aspect of the Internet ... We are losing our country”
  • On April 9, Beck claimed that net neutrality is the prelude to a “hostile takeover” of America.

Of course, Beck and Limbaugh are not the only right-wing media figures who believe that net neutrality is some sort of government plot to control Internet content. And as Media Matters has noted, Beck, Limbaugh, and the rest are simply wrong about net neutrality.

Perhaps they need a potential real-world application of what net neutrality rules might actually regulate to better understand the concept. So let's take a look at the battle between Comcast and Level 3 to show them what net neutrality is about.

Level 3 -- which helps deliver Netflix's streaming content - recently claimed that Comcast is charging an unfair fee for the right to send data to its subscribers and which puts Internet video companies at a competitive disadvantage. Thomas Stortz, Level 3's chief legal adviser, said that “Comcast is effectively putting up a toll booth at the borders of its broadband Internet access network, enabling it to unilaterally decide how much to charge for content” and that the move “demonstrates the risk of a 'closed' Internet, where a retail broadband Internet access provider decides whether and how their subscribers interact with content.”

In response, as the AP reported, “Comcast called Level 3's position 'duplicitous' and said a previous deal for the companies to handle traffic for each other had become unbalanced in Level 3's favor."

The dispute has put the debate over net neutrality back in the spotlight. As The New York Times noted: “The dispute highlighted the growing importance of Internet video delivery -- an area that some people say needs to be monitored more closely by regulators. Net neutrality, which posits that Internet traffic should be free of any interference from network operators like Comcast, is thought to be on the December agenda of the Federal Communications Commission.”

Net neutrality proponents criticized Comcast's actions. The Media Access Project said in a statement: “Comcast's request of payment in exchange for content transmission is yet another example of why citizens need strong, effective network neutrality rules that include a ban on such 'paid prioritization' practices.”

And as Fortune magazine blogger Seth Weintraub noted, Comcast's decision “sets a scary precedent” that could eventually hit consumers' wallets. He also argued that net neutrality “would prevent this type of corporate abuse” :

This sets a scary precedent. If Comcast can charge an extra fee to Level 3 for hosting Netflix (NFLX) content, it could (and probably will at some point) charge Google (GOOG) to stream YouTube movies or Apple (AAPL) to broadcast iTunes content. Because Comcast owns the last mile, they hold the keys.

What does this mean for consumers?

This particular action by Comcast will probably reach customers in the form of increased rates for Netflix customers. Netflix has to pay more for Level 3's services so the gouging is passed to consumers.

Ironically, this move comes on the very week that President Obama's FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski will announce whether he'll fulfill Obama's promise to protect the open Internet and Net Neutrality -- which would prevent this type of corporate abuse.

The dispute between Comcast and Level 3 helps serve as reminder about what net neutrality is -- and what it isn't. Net neutrality is intended to prohibit Internet service providers from controlling access to Internet content. As the Congressional Research Service has stated, net neutrality is the principle that “owners of the networks that compose and provide access to the Internet should not control how consumers lawfully use that network; and should not be able to discriminate against content provider access to that network.”

Net neutrality -- despite the hyperbolic fearmongering spewed by Beck and Limbaugh -- simply is not a government plot to “control what you see on the Internet” or “limit the amount of conservatism” on the Internet.