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What Is Net Neutrality and Why Should You Care?

iStock/Chloe Effron
iStock/Chloe Effron

You may have heard that Net Neutrality is in the news again. If you're wondering, "What is Net Neutrality?" or, "Why do I care?" or, "Does this mean my cable bill goes up or down?" we've got answers to (most of) your questions.

What's Net Neutrality? (Explain It To Me Like I'm 10 Years Old)

If you don't like reading things, here's a good video explanation:

Okay, Explain Net Neutrality To Me Like I'm Five Years Old

The internet is a series of tubes.

YouTube has many tubes coming out of it, so the video can get out.

YouTube's tubes go to lots of other big companies like Comcast and Verizon.

Comcast and Verizon have small tubes that come to our house and our neighbors' houses, and hook up to our wifi thingies. That's how the video gets into our house—it goes through tubes from YouTube to Comcast and Verizon, then through little tubes to us.

So let's look at a hypothetical—I mean, uh, "imaginary"—situation.

The trouble is, we watch a lot of YouTube. You know it. Admit it. Okay, it's okay, stop crying. It's not your fault. It's our whole family watching YouTube.

No, see, the trouble is that because we like YouTube so much, Comcast and Verizon might want YouTube to pay them extra money to make sure they keep those tubes flowing nicely so our video keeps coming in. After all, it costs money to keep all those tubes flowing. And they like money.

But what if YouTube doesn't pay up? Then Comcast and Verizon could block those tubes, or maybe slow them down. Then we don't get to watch our John Green videos anymore, or they just buffer...all...the...time. That's bad. And for a long time now, it looks like the U.S. government was going to say that was okay. I know, that's scary!

But let's keep going for a minute. What if YouTube does pay Comcast and Verizon for a nice fast tube? Well, that money has to come from somewhere, so it probably means YouTube puts more ads on the videos. Yeah, I know, there are already a lot of ads. But somebody would have to pay for this, right? Maybe Comcast and Verizon could just charge us more if we want YouTube on our internet. Right now, we just get YouTube because it's part of the internet...but the government has been saying maybe it's okay to let Comcast and Verizon and the other companies change that.

But the scarier thing is, what if Comcast and Verizon decided that they liked Vimeo better than YouTube? What if they bought Vimeo because they liked it so much? And then what if they decided that the Vimeo videos would always flow smoothly, but the YouTube videos would be slow and get stuck in that weird buffering thing? It would be hard for us to watch YouTube. And Vimeo doesn't have very many John Green videos. So we'd probably end up paying extra just to get our YouTube back.

And what if somebody comes out with a new site that's better than YouTube and Vimeo combined? Let's call it FutureTube. How is FutureTube, a startup based in your cousin's garage, going to afford to pay to get videos into the tubes when the big sites are already set up with these special paid pipes that make video flow smoothly? What if the next John Green (we'll call her Jane Blue) starts making all her videos on FutureTube, but Comcast and Verizon don't like FutureTube because FutureTube doesn't have much money yet? That would be bad. Jane Blue would be really blue.

"Net Neutrality" is an idea that should stop all of these bad tube-related things from happening. The idea is, lots of Americans want the government to make strong laws saying that all the tubes should be treated equally, no matter what Comcast or Verizon or YouTube or FutureTube or Vimeo or anybody says. All the tubes should work the same way.

Okay, Knock It Off and Explain It To Me Like I'm a Grownup

So here's the boring truth: "Net Neutrality" is a cool term representing one idea for "How we should regulate Internet Service Providers (ISPs)." That's it. A lot of people cast this debate in terms of freedom, neutrality, equality, free-market competition, and so on—and that's one way to look at it, sure—but it comes down to the details of how the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is going to regulate (or not regulate) ISPs in the future. To a great extent, we currently have Net Neutrality, so the discussion lately has been mostly about whether we should preserve it, extend it, or remove it (after all, plenty of people are into deregulation). Net Neutrality advocates are mostly saying, "Make it keep working like it does now, but let's please make sure that's legally enforceable."

The explanation of the internet above as a series of tubes isn't technically correct or complete in plenty of ways. For one thing, it's messy sorting out who pays whom in the equation—because consumers pay ISPs for broadband service, and ISPs have peering agreements with each other (basically, shared access to each other's networks, which can be paid), and there are many special cases like Netflix's OpenConnect (a way to put Netflix servers in ISP data centers to reduce the amount of "distance" between streaming server and clients, among other things). To some extent, everybody is paying everybody to make it all work. But we should probably put aside the technical details and just get to the heart of the question: What exactly is the FCC planning to do?

Last Wednesday, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said he plans to classify broadband ISPs using the FCC's "Title II authority." This is a big deal. This means that the ISPs can be regulated much like phone companies have been, because the internet is as important to Americans' daily lives as landline phone companies used to be. The Title II regulation of phone companies led to a stable network of interoperating phone systems that worked pretty well. Many geeks feel that when you have the near-monopolies that represent the broadband ISPs in the U.S., regulation is the only way to make them play nice. (Where I live, I have a grand total of two choices for broadband, and one is deadly slow. Um. So I guess I'll stick with the not-slow one?)

(If you're interested in Title II in detail, read this explainer.)

Wheeler's move to embrace Title II (after previously supporting a very different legal scheme) was likely influenced by two very public factors: President Obama supporting it, and literally millions of public comments from geeks (and non-geeks) who responded to stuff like John Oliver's video on the topic, which has been viewed 7.8 million times as of this writing (not to mention all those who saw it on his HBO show Last Week Tonight):

President Obama's video, viewed 0.8 million times, is less compelling, but still:

Does This Mean Net Neutrality Is Here Now?

Yes and no; like I said above, we have a form of Net Neutrality now, but we lack a strong set of laws to enforce it. The big news is that the FCC Chairman and President Obama think Title II regulation is the right way to go. What comes next is a long process of rule-making, probably lots of court cases initiated by broadband providers, and so on. Also, just because Tom Wheeler says a thing doesn't necessarily mean he'll do it—but I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, given the intense public scrutiny on this issue. I mean, John Oliver already called him a dingo (Wheeler was surprisingly cool about that one).

From a geek's perspective, getting national leaders onboard with the concept of Net Neutrality at all is a big deal, and having them specifically adopt Title II is what most geeks have been asking for (by the way, the ISPs hate Title II—and you know when a regulated entity hates a particular regulation, it probably works).

Why Should I Care?

There's a nice visual explanation of why you should care, over at A Guide To the Open Internet.

As you scroll on that site, note all the crappy add-on packages in the "What ISPs Want" section. Does that look familiar to you? It looks just like the junk that comes with my cable internet bill. Do I want to add phone service? How about a security package? How about premium channels? Maybe I'd like a DVR? Or a bundle of everything for just $10 a month (tiny print: price goes up to $200 a month starting in six seconds; two-year contract required)? Nope. I just want internet service, and I want to pay for it like I pay for my phone. I pick a plan from the available providers in my area, I pay a single fee, and then I make phone calls. I don't want my ISP controlling how I use my data, as long as what I'm doing is legal. Seems fair, right?

Will This Reduce My Bills?

In the short term, no, because nothing has actually changed yet. In the long term, maybe, though it's hard to predict.

It's important to remember that this whole issue isn't about reducing costs for consumers; it's about how the internet works in terms of getting information from one point to another. While we have reason to hope that there will be positive side effects like increased competition or increased innovation (like "FutureTube" above), those are not the core reasons to protect how the internet works.

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Big Questions
Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?
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The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Who Was Heisman and Why Does He Have a Trophy?
Brett Deering/Getty Images
Brett Deering/Getty Images

On Saturday night, one of three finalists will be named this year's Heisman Trophy winner. But before anyone brings home the hardware, let’s answer a few questions about John Heisman and his famous award.

Who Exactly Was John Heisman?

© Bettmann/CORBIS

His name is mostly associated with the trophy now, but Heisman (right) was a player, coach, and hugely successful innovator in the early days of football. After playing for Brown and then Penn as a collegian from 1887 to 1891, Heisman became a coach at a series of schools that included Oberlin, Buchtel, Auburn, Clemson, Penn, Washington & Jefferson, Rice, and, most notably, Georgia Tech.

For What Football Innovations Does Heisman Get Credit?

Just some little trivial stuff like snapping the ball. Centers originally placed the ball on the ground and rolled it back to their quarterbacks, who would scoop it up and make plays. When Heisman was coaching at Buchtel (which later became the University of Akron), though, he had a 6’4” QB named Harry Clark. Clark was so tall that picking the ball up off the ground was wildly inefficient, so Heisman invented the center snap as an easy way to get the ball in Clark’s hands. Heisman also innovated the use of pulling guards for running plays and the infamous hidden-ball trick.

Any Other Shenanigans on Heisman’s Resume?

You bet. When Heisman found a way to gain an edge, he jumped on it no matter how ridiculous it seemed. When Heisman was coaching at Clemson in 1902, his team traveled to Atlanta for a game against Georgia Tech. Although Heisman was known for being a rather gruff disciplinarian, the Clemson team immediately started partying upon their arrival.

When Georgia Tech’s players and fans heard that the entire Clemson squad had spent the night before the game carousing, they prepared to coast to an easy win. When the game started, though, Clemson roared out of the gate en route to a 44-5 stomping.

How did Clemson crush Tech when by all rights they should have been ridiculously hungover? The “team” that everyone had seen partying the night before wasn’t really Heisman’s Clemson squad at all. He had sent his junior varsity players to Atlanta the night before to serve as drunken decoys, then quietly slipped his varsity team in on a morning train right before the game.

What Kind of Coach Was He?

Heisman worked as an actor in community stock theater during the summer – he consistently received rotten reviews – and allegedly spoke in a brusque, yet bizarrely ostentatious manner. Georgia Tech’s website relates a story of one of Heisman’s speeches he would break out on the first day of practice while describing a football: "What is this? It is a prolate spheroid, an elongated sphere - in which the outer leather casing is drawn tightly over a somewhat smaller rubber tubing. Better to have died as a small boy than to fumble this football."

How Did His Name Get on the Trophy?

After leaving his head-coaching job at Rice in 1927, Heisman became the athletic director at New York’s Downtown Athletic Club. In 1935 the club began awarding the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy to the nation’s top college football star. (Chicago’s Jay Berwanger won the first trophy.) Heisman died of pneumonia the following fall before the second trophy could be awarded, and the club voted to rename the prize the Heisman Memorial Trophy Award.

Did He Ever Really Throw that Iconic Stiff Arm?

© Bettmann/CORBIS

Possibly, but Heisman didn’t have the ball in his hands all that much. Even though he was a fairly small guy at just 5’8” and 158 pounds, he played as a lineman throughout his college career.

The famous “Heisman pose” is actually based on Ed Smith, a former NYU running back who modeled for the trophy’s sculptor in 1934. Interestingly, Smith went years without knowing that he’d modeled for the famous trophy. His sculptor buddy Frank Eliscu had just needed a football player to model for a project, and Smith volunteered.

Smith figured Eliscu was just doing some little personal sculpture and remained totally oblivious to his spot in football history for the next 48 years until a documentary filmmaker called Smith to interview him about the Heisman in 1982. Smith initially had no idea what the guy was talking about, but he eventually remembered his modeling days. In 1985, the Downtown Athletic Club gave Smith his own copy of the Heisman, and in 1986 he even received recognition on the televised ceremony. He looked at the four finalists – Vinny Testaverde won that year – and quipped, "Whoever wins the award, I feel sorry for you, because you're going to be looking at my ugly face for a long time." [Pictured Above: Auburn's Bo Jackson in 1985.]

What’s a Heisman Trophy Worth on the Open Market?

Quite a bit. A number of Heisman winners have eventually sold their hardware, and the trophies fetch quite a bit of loot. O.J. Simpson got $230,000 for his, and several others have gone for six-figure prices. The most expensive trophy that’s changed hands was Minnesota back Bruce Smith’s 1941 award; it fetched $395,240.

How Did Steve Spurrier Change the Process?

SEC fans are going to be floored by this one, but the Ol’ Ball Coach did something really classy when he won the Heisman in 1966. Instead of taking the trophy for himself, Spurrier gave it to the University of Florida so the school could display it and let the student body enjoy it. Florida’s student government thought Spurrier’s generosity was so classy that they paid for a replica for Spurrier so he’d get to have his own trophy, too. Since then both the school and the player have received copies of the trophy.

So Heisman Must Have Been the World’s Greatest Sportsman, Right?

Well, not really. Heisman was on the victorious side of possibly the most gratuitously run-up score in sports history. In 1916 tiny Cumberland College canceled its football program and disbanded its squad, but it had previously signed a contract to travel to Atlanta to play Heisman’s Georgia Tech team. If Cumberland didn’t show up, they had to pay Georgia Tech a $3,000 penalty, which was quite a bit of cash in 1916.

Rather than forfeiting the money, Cumberland scraped together a team of 16 scrubs and went to take their walloping from Heisman’s boys. For reasons that still aren’t totally clear – some say it was to avenge an earlier baseball loss to Cumberland, while others claim Heisman wanted to make a statement about the absurdity of the old system of using total points scored to determine the national champion – the legendary coach showed Cumberland’s ragtag band no mercy. Tech went up 63-0 in the first quarter, but Heisman kept attacking until the final score was 222-0. There are tons of hilarious stats from the game, but the funniest is Georgia Tech rushing for 1,620 yards while Cumberland only squeaked out negative-96 yards on 27 carries.

This article originally appeared in 2010.

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