“When I invented the Web, I didn’t have to ask anyone’s permission.”
Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, on Net Neutrally
What is it?
Simply put, net neutrality is the notion that all internet traffic should be treated equally. It is widely considered a cornerstone of the success of the internet, and allows smaller players to compete with large companies on an even playing field, which is good for the economy, and encourages innovation.
Why is it in trouble?
The big communications carriers have never liked net neutrality, as they would like to prioritize some internet traffic above others – either for purely commercial reasons; i.e. so they can charge internet companies for delivering content faster to their customers, or so they can prioritize their own services (such as video streaming) over those of their competition.
In 2010 the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released the Open Internet Order with the stated aim of ensuring that net neutrality was observed, but in January this year Verizon successfully challenged the FCC over whether the ‘common carriers’ covered by the Order refers to Internet Service Providers.
This court ruling effectively struck down net neutrality in the United States, and it did not take long for the telecoms giants to start restricting competitor’s internet access.
So what is the FCC doing about it?
It is the FCC’s job to protect net neutrality, and it could do this easily by simply redefining “communications services” (which are classed as “common carriers”) to include internet services. It has however decided not to do this, and in a fit of Orwellian doubletalk, instead proposed “saving” net neutrality by allowing telecoms companies to introduce internet fast lanes!
A 60 day public consultation had to be extended following two website crashes and an unprecedented 1.1 million submissions from the general public, most of which called for the preservation of net neutrality. Despite this public outcry, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler (who used to work as a lobbyist against net neutrality) has continued to voice his support for paid prioritization.
So what does this mean for internet users?
The death of net neutrality benefits only the big telecoms companies, allowing them a tighter stranglehold on internet access in the United States. It will in effect create a two (or more) tier internet, where a few wealthy and powerful businesses can pay for fast internet delivery, leaving homegrown, start-up, charity, and the other small-scale content which has so far been a driving force and source of innovation on the internet, to wither and die in the slow lane (or be excluded altogether).
In addition to this, it is likely that ISPs will start to offer customers cable-style internet ‘channels’, offering access to only a limited selection of approved websites, with unrestricted access to the internet only being available to premium subscribers. This is in fact already starting to happen, and is set to further widen the digital divide, as poorer customers opt for cheaper packages that only offer access to a limited selection of popular websites (rather than the entire internet).
As touched on briefly above, ISP’s can (and already have) use network prioritization to discriminate against their competition. A prime example of this is Comcast and Verizon’s throttling of Netflix traffic. Although these companies claim that Netflix’s popularity means its streaming traffic unfairly hogs their bandwidth, being able to watch such content from the likes of Netflix is surely why customers pay for bandwidth in the first place, is it not? Is it possible the fact that both Comcast and Verizon operate rival TV streaming services accounts for their hostility to Netflix?
The collapse of net neutrality also means that ISPs can choose to simply restrict or censor access to content based on their prejudices, political and religious views, etc. At present, using a VPN service such as IronSocket is a very effective way to bypass such throttling (and worse), as spectacularly demonstrated by Colin Nederkoorn, CEO of Customer.io who was able to increase his Netflix speeds on Verizon tenfold by using a VPN.
However, there is nothing to prevent ISPs from restricting VPN traffic (or demanding that VPN providers surrender their customer’s encryption keys in return for speedy internet access).
Net neutrality is vitally important issue for us all, and the future of an open, inclusive internet that encourages the free exchange of ideas, andprovides access to the greatest repository of human knowledge the human race has ever known to any and all, is at stake.
Last week’s Internet Slowdown Day protest, aimed at raising public awareness about net neutrality, was a massive success, and clearly demonstrates that ordinary people do not want a multi-tiered internet that benefits no-one except the interests of big business…