Tech. Science. Culture.
We may earn a commission from links on this page

How to Explain Net Neutrality to Your Relatives: A Thanksgiving Guide

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Thanksgiving is almost here, and that means turkey, mashed potatoes, and getting peppered with questions about tech-related news stories because hey, you read a bunch of blogs and you even know what a yik-yak is! It's only a matter of time before they ask you "So what's up with that thing on the internets?"

Lucky for all of us, the year of Bitcoin is over and you're probably safe from having to explain the finer points of the the blockchain to Uncle Nigel, who seems waaay too interested about the part where you can use cryptocurrency to buy heinous porn on the darknet. No, this year there's a good chance you'll wind up describing "common carriers" and gingerly trying to explain how sometimes government regulation is the answer to your Tea Partier Aunt and her enthusiastically nodding second husband when they blindly ask you what this "net neutrality" thing is all about.

We're here to help. Below you'll find a list of potential questions, fleshed out with some background, tips, and a sample answer to help you wow the dinner table before navigating the discussion back to something more palatable like sportsball or political issues that people actually understand.


So what's up with this net neutrality thing? I heard about it on AM radio.

OK, they've asked you. No one wants to preach but hey once they bring it up, might as well give them a decent answer. Every conversation is different, but when it comes to a subject as multifaceted as a free and open internet, it's super important to drip-feed the info. As an internet-er with a Twitter account, there's a good chance you know more about the nuances of the issue than whomever you're talking to. More than you might think, even. (In fairness, they probably know more than you about having children and paying taxes. Unless you're talking to a tween, in which case give up and start texting them emojis.)


Metaphors are your friend when you're talking net neutrality, even if they aren't perfect (they never are). Vi Hart has a great video that breaks the whole thing down into physical shipping terms. It's 11 minutes long, but even the first 1:30 will give you something to work with. And this College Humor video is a good overview with some jokes you can steal. No one will be the wiser!

Here's a baseline script to work with:

"You know how you can see every website from every internet connection, and there are no long distance charges or anything? That's because of net neutrality. Every website gets treated the same, so you don't have to pay your internet company extra for certain sites like you have to pay your cable company extra for more cable channels. When you buy an internet connection, you always get the whole internet."


Well that's not true. I have to pay extra for Netflix/Brazzers!

Uncle Nigel getting sassy. And missing the point, but it's fine; that's a good question for a few reasons. It's an example that no metaphor is perfect, but it also lets you introduce another piece of the puzzle: web business that aren't cable companies. Businesses like Netflix. If the internet is like cable TV, these are the "channels," and the point you want to make is that thanks to net neutrality, cable companies don't dictate your access to internet services they way they dictate your access to channels in a cable package. And that's great, because hating cable companies is something everyone can agree on.



"Right, but that's between you and Netflix. [Insert local cable company here] doesn't get to decide if you can get Netflix, or how much you should pay for access to it."


This is also a great lead-in to the next question. If you're feeling bold, don't even wait for anyone to ask it.

OK but what good does net neutrality actually do?

This is a fun one because here you get to spin a yarn and whip out your favorite "worst case scenario." You've probably already read a few of these—we wrote one ourselves; and that's because it's a great way to get the point across.


Ultimately it comes down to: "Without net neutrality, [local cable provider] will try to force you to use [their shitty service] by making [good service] cost more/work shittier." The simplest is to just use Comcast and Netflix and Xfinity (Xfinity streaming is Comcast's in-house Netflix if you've never had the pleasure), but by all means substitute something more specific if you can.


The fact that cable companies are local monopolies also starts to factor in here, and chances are your audience knows all about this by virtue of just having cable and not having much of a choice who to get it from. It's a good time to bring up the Time Warner and Comcast merger though, if either of those is the Big Guy in town (and one of them probably is).

Start here:

"Two reasons net neutrality matters. Cable companies have shitty on demand video and other services that compete with the ones you like, and they have your nuts in a vise/have you between a rock and a hard place* since most cable companies are the only game in town. There's basically no one else you can switch to if you don't like what they're doing. So without net neutrality, Comcast can make you use Xfinity streaming unless you pay them more for access to Netflix. And that's on top of what you'd have to pay Netflix too! Or they can just slow down Netflix—and just Netflix—until it's totally unusable.

Without net neutrality, cable companies don't have to let you use the best things; they can just make you use their things unless you pay extra. Instead of making its services better, Comcast can just make other people's services worse."


*varies based on the politeness/drunkenness of company.

It's obviously way more complicated than this, but that's the gist as far as an average joe is concerned. And if you want to get into a more in-depth discussion about peering agreements and the Netflix-Comcast side of the net neutrality love triangle (legitimately fascinating stuff!), by all means. But Uncle Jimmy is probably going to lose a little bit of interest as soon as you're not at least ostensibly talking about him and the things he likes to look at on his 1st gen iPad.


But net neutrality is going away?? Obama even said a thing I think! I read a Twitter about it.

Again, this is annoyingly complicated, but here's the skinny if you aren't caught up: In the U.S. we've been working under something called the FCC Open Internet Order of 2010 for a few years now. Mostly it says that internet companies like Comcast and Time Warner and Verizon can't just block shit for no reason, need to be transparent about what they're doing, and can't unreasonably discriminate against different kinds of traffic.


That last one has a little bit of wiggle room but things were going mostly fine-ish until an appeals court decided that actually the FCC actually has no authority to make those calls if ISPs aren't "common carriers." Which is to say if they aren't government-regulated services that have to serve the public without discrimination, like a power company. They aren't, so the rules don't apply.

(The one big exception to the rule is Comcast, which agreed to follow the Open Internet Rule until January of 2018 as part of its merger with NBCUniversal, but that's such a specific case it's really not worth bringing up unless someone specifically says "but I saw Comcast say it's in favor of net neutrality" in which case you should probably just give up and just ask them what they think because clearly they are keeping super close track of this stuff.)


So to boil it alllll the way down, ISPs went to court and finally proved the the emperor in charge of making internet rules (the FCC) has no clothes or legal authority.


"The FCC—that is, the part of the government that won't Eminem be himself/makes sure people get fined if a boob shows up at the Super Bowl*— has always been in charge of making net neutrality rules, but in January a court ruled that they really don't have the authority to make rules anyway so now nothing they said before counts anymore. The FCC is still coming up with new ideas, but all the cable companies know they don't really have to listen. And when Time Warner Cable and Comcast become the same company—and a huuge monopoly—things could get really scary and bad for you."


*Again, choose based on the company.

How do we keep that from happening?

Warning: Discussion could get dicey here because the short answer basically "yes; we institute government regulation" and you know how Aunt Diane gets about government regulation. The great thing about talking net neutrality though is that if things do get ideologically heated, you can always just pivot to making fun of cable companies. Maybe even bookmark Ryan Block's hilariously horrible Comcast customer service call so you have it in your back pocket. It's a fun group listen!


Anyway, so there's this thing called Title II, which will reclassify ISPs as common carriers (basically as full-on utility companies) and subject them to a bunch of annoying but necessary governmental red tape. It means that legally, internet connections get all the same regulations and protection that water and electricity and other must-haves get. This plan has its flaws—Title II was written to pertain to phone lines in the 1930s—but it's the best plan that has a chance to work. And don't let anyone get away with any with drawing comparisons to Obamacare because those are bullshit.

See, the problem isn't so much that ISPs are unregulated, but that they tend to be unregulated legal monopolies. If we had better competition, net neutrality would be less of a huge deal because you could just switch away from the shitty ISPs and let them wither on the vine. But the realities of laying cable mean that there's virtually no competition, and getting to a world where cable companies are regulated to keep them from doing horrible things is easier than getting to a world with competition. Of course the cable companies want neither.


Under Obama's plan, we switch ISPs over to Title II, but we leave things a little open; the parts of Title II that are outdated—you know, like anything that refers to "President Roosevelt"—can be ignored at the FCC's discretion. This is all super important context to have as an explainer, but yet again, most of that's safely ignored in a top-level, turkey-heavy discussion. Ultimately, Obama suggested a pretty good plan and now we're waiting for the FCC to take his lead. Hopefully it will, but a lot of the people at the FCC are good friends with/used to work for cable companies, so there's still room for the FCC to just whiff on purpose.

I'd pitch it like this:

"Obama has a plan; he told the FCC that they should reclassify ISPs as "common carriers" using something called "Title II." That would mean the law would treat the internet as a utility, like water or power, and the FCC would have the authority to make rules for them. Cable companies don't like this idea because it comes with a lot of regulation (like net neutrality rules and more), whereas right now they can basically do whatever they want.

Cable companies are arguing that government regulation is a really bad thing and that it'll slow down the growth of the internet, and to a small degree they might be right. A better solution would be more competition so you can just have a choice and switch to the best cable company and let the free market sort it out. But there's really only one option in most places and big mergers mean there will be even less competition. The only half-decent near-term option is to force the ISPs to not be shitty. So that's what Obama is asking the FCC to do."


Are you still dating that Erin girl?


Try something like:

"No Grandma, she broke up with me in 2008 but I honestly feel like I'm a better person for it."


Anyway, assuming we actually care now about net neutrality what can we do?

This is an easy one because the answer is pretty much nothing. The window for submitting comments to the FCC is closed, so that fun John Oliver call to arms you might have seen doesn't really apply anymore. The only people who have any power over where things go moving forward is the FCC, which will probably (hopefully) vote to go ahead with Obama's plans, and the cable lobbyists who are going to try and convince their FCC buddies to do anything but that.


Congress could step in at just about any time to pass a bill forcing the FCC to do what Obama asked, and at least one bill has been put up to a vote, to no avail. Of course it doesn't help that Congress, like the FCC, is lousy with conflicts of interest.

The FCC has said it's going to wait until next year to make its vote, and for now there's not much to do besides sit on your hands and maybe write a congressmen if you're into that sorta thing. But really the most important thing you can do is just encourage your folks to at least try and follow the thread a little bit because this stuff is important and it's not even close to over yet. Really the most important thing you can do is to be educated on big, complicated issues like this that really matter. And both you and Aunt Becky deserve props for having this convo.


To summarize, it's like:

"Nothing really! The FCC asked the public for comment and a lot of nerds screamed at them to do the right thing, but now we're all just waiting for them to make their decision about whether to follow Obama's plan. They've put off their internal vote until next year so it's just a waiting game unless Congress steps in to tell them what to do, but it won't. Like most really important things there's not really much we can do but watch, wait, and be as informed as we can be. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯*."


*I'm not 100 percent sure how to pronounce that but just try your best. Maybe you can approximate it with your body or something.

Can you pass the gravy?

You've done it. You've managed to explain the broad strokes of one of the most complex and important issues in technology to some genuinely curious folks who may have never have figured it out otherwise. Who knows, maybe they'll even remember this conversation a week from now!


So go ahead and pat yourself on the back real quick before you pass that gravy, and consider closing out with something like this:

"Here you go! So Grandpa, how 'bout that Obamacare?"