There's nothing like a good exaggeration to make a political point. Senator Al Franken made a great one recently on the Marketplace radio show, casting net neutrality as a free speech issue.
Franken's arguments betray a deep belief in net neutrality mythology and a corresponding misunderstanding of how the Internet works. Referring to the net neutrality utopian view of a neutral Internet, Franken claims "...a lot of people don't realize that that's just the way the Internet has always been." No, it hasn't.
Broadband service is not a simple network connection. If it ever was, it hasn't been for many years, and this is a good thing. The asymmetric nature of content flows on the Internet means that the network has to be managed by providers, and management necessarily involves prioritization.
Ever since FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announced a reformulation of net neutrality rules, net neutrality advocates like Franken have decried the possibility of "fast lanes" for the rich and corresponding slow lanes for the masses. The thing is, there have been fast lanes for something like 20 years, and broadband couldn't function without them.
This is done with CDNs (Content Distribution Networks), most famously Akamai. Read the product description for Akamai's Aqua Ion service:
Aqua Ion continuously pulls and caches fresh content onto servers that are closest to the end user. Our dynamic mapping system directs user requests for application content to the optimal Akamai edge server, depending on their location and transaction type, even for requests coming from mobile networks. Then, through Akamai route optimization – known as Sure Route – we identify a fast, reliable path back to your data center to retrieve dynamic/interactive content. We use several connection techniques to optimize communications between the Akamai edge server and your origin infrastructure to deliver dynamic content using optimized connections that avoid Internet problem spots.
Those edge servers are likely in the local network office for your ISP, like Comcast, Cox, Verizon, etc. That sure sounds like a fast lane to me. And good thing, because if every content provider were going through the same internet working connections. the performance for services with high data demands would suffer and they would be more vulnerable to attacks, especially DDOS attacks. In fact, around ten years ago, Microsoft experienced a spate of DDOS attacks, causing them to move large amounts of their web infrastructure to Akamai.
Net neutrality advocates have mostly pretended that CDNs don't exist, but some are instead constructing bad arguments that CDNs aren't a problem for net neutrality. S. Derek Turner on freepress says that CDNs are a straw man, claiming that because they have their own network they don't disadvantage other content. This just doesn't wash. If your content is getting to the last mile more efficiently then it has an advantage over the content that isn't. Obviously it's a fast lane, and content providers wouldn't pay for it if it weren't.
Franken goes a step further, by calling net neutrality a free speech issue. He puts it this way: "You want someone's individual blog to travel as fast as the New York Times." Really? And if they don't travel at the same speed, the slower one is being censored? If Franken were raising the possibility that someone's blog would actually be blocked that would be one thing (although nobody is suggesting such is a possibility).
His statement illustrates a conflation of issues that has happened in net neutrality thought: The original fear was over disparate treatment of different forms of data based on content (competitor advertising, disfavored political views) or application type (BitTorrent, streaming video). The content treatment could be a form of censorship, but if there have been examples of this they have been few and far between. The one famous example of Comcast temporarily throttling BitTorrent was because of the volume of traffic, and Comcast now will only throttle bandwidth-hogging users in a protocol-independent manner. So there's no net neutrality issue there. In fact, the new FCC proposed rules specifically say that no legal content may be blocked.
Now the main issue has turned to disparate treatment of content providers by ISPs. I suspect there are two reasons why this has happened. First, the original net neutrality proposals against content discrimination are a solution in search of a problem, and second because there was no public interest in it. On the other hand, it's easier to drum up public interest by bashing the big, bad ISPs, because everyone has to deal with them.
But the new net neutrality problems are no more real than the old ones. They're just an anti-corporate dystopian fantasy. Al Franken's censorship claims might be funny if he weren't in an important position.