So controversial that, last July, thousands of US protesters took to the streets in support of it. And many of the world’s biggest internet companies – including Netflix, Twitter, SoundCloud, DropBox and even YouPorn – showed solidarity with protestors by displaying pro-net neutrality messages on their sites.
So what is net neutrality? And why are so many people p***ed off?
Net neutrality is the principle by which Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are required to give consumers equal access to all legal content on the web. In the US, legislation to safeguard net neutrality came into effect in 2015.
In theory, websites could pay ISPs to block competitors’ websites or slow them down, as well as to increase the speed of their own sites. Net neutrality ensures that no one gets preferential treatment.
Think about it like a motorway. The network which underpins the internet is the road. On a net neutral motorway, there are no fast lanes and slow lanes. All data is equal, whether that’s the latest episode of Stranger Things or your mate Rob’s blog.
On a road which has abandoned net neutrality, the motorway owners take money to shuffle certain cars into the fast lane. Those that can afford it ensure they always arrive first, and they even pay to slow other cars down. On this road, Netflix could make sure Stranger Things arrives very quickly, while Rob’s blog takes eons to load. Poor Rob.
But Netflix wouldn’t do this, because they support net neutrality. This raises the question: why?
It looks like big companies which can afford to speed up their data would benefit from abandoning net neutrality. These companies would be able to afford to pay to move their data around quickly, while their smaller competitors wouldn’t. So why are they protesting to keep the legislation?
There are two reasons. Firstly, they believe net neutrality is ethical. The internet has always been a haven of free speech and of freedom in general. By ditching net neutrality, ISPs would be able to control what audiences see and do online. And many just don’t think that’s fair.
Secondly, abandoning net neutrality may force companies to hike up prices, which is something they don’t necessarily want to do.
Let’s take Twitter as an example. Twitter is currently free. But an ISP could slow down its services until they paid a fee. Bear in mind that Twitter made its first ever profit in the last quarter of 2017. Companies on the financial knife-edge like this (a group which consists of a surprising number of big internet companies) would have pass this price hike on to consumers in order to remain profitable and keep shareholders happy.
This means that, one day, you log on to tweet and are asked to enter your card details – £1 per tweet, please. Of course, you refuse, and, along with millions of others, promptly delete your Twitter account. A month later, Twitter is dead.
You may be thinking that net neutrality is a great idea, and asking why anyone would want to get rid of it.
When people talk about net neutrality, they’re usually talking about events going on in America. And, at this point, over there, the battle is already over.
At the time of writing, net neutrality has already been formally repealed in the US. Despite all the protests, last December, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted by a margin of 3-to-2 to approve the Restoring Internet Freedom Order – an act that kills net neutrality. The repeal took effect (last week) on 23 April 2018.
Those who opposed net neutrality claimed it discouraged investment, stifled small businesses, argued that paid prioritisation already exists online and claimed that ISPs don’t block or throttle traffic.
Whether or not these arguments stand up is still very much a matter of debate, with protesters arguing that the real reason net neutrality has been repealed is simply boost ISP profits. What is not debatable is that, on 23 April, many American media companies declared that the internet as American citizens previously knew it had died.
Okay, fine. That’s not great for the US. But I live in the UK – how will this affect me?
The UK and the US have very different internet and telecoms industries. In the US, a handful of players (AT&T, Comcast and Verizon) dominate the industry.
In fact, one of the FCC’s main motivations for scrapping net neutrality is to boost competition in the industry. By removing the level playing field net neutrality provided, ISPs will be able to offer a greater number of packages – e.g., the fastest YouTube speeds on the market. Or so the argument goes…
In the UK, competition is much fiercer, so there is less debate about whether we should get rid of it.
Currently net neutrality is protected by EU law. These laws prevent ISPs from blocking or slowing down traffic, except where necessary. Exceptions apply when ISPs are complying with a legal order, to ensure network integrity and security and to manage congestion.
However, after Brexit, EU neutrality laws will no longer apply in the UK. It is also possible that the UK could leave Berec, the European regulator on net neutrality.
The UK government has stated that it intends to transfer EU rules over to UK law. Still, the possibility remains that politicians could make amendments before it is passed. And lobbyists from both sides will no doubt be involved in these efforts.
This means that, in the near future, the UK may have its own net neutrality battle. And you may have to pick a side.
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