What is net neutrality?Net neutrality is the principle that internet service providers (ISPs) must treat all data on the internet the same. This means they may not block or slow down specific websites on purpose or allow companies to pay for preferential treatment. For instance, an ISP may not throttle your bandwidth for movie sites like YouTube or get a commission from YouTube to speed up download speeds relative to their competitors.
Whether net neutrality is a good or a bad thing is currently a hot topic, involving as it does multiple ethical, practical, financial and legal issues. Right now, the US’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposal to reverse the 2015 net neutrality rules that prevent providers from discriminating in their routing of internet traffic will likely become law by the end of 2017. And, both dissenters and supporters of net neutrality are getting really riled up. One irate citizen American even threatened to kill a US congressman if he (the congressman) didn’t support net neutrality. Proponents of net neutrality believe controls on how the internet works is an attack on freedom of speech and of choice.
On the other side of the world, India considered one the most progressive worldwide regarding net neutrality and working to enforce it rather than control it, recently barred providers from charging differential rates for data services. One of the offshoots was that Facebook’s Free Basics service was effectively prohibited which really annoyed Mark Zuckerberg. According to a BBC report, “He believes his effort to provide Indians with free access to a limited number of internet services hurts India's democracy and violates net neutrality”.
The subject is very controversial and quite complex. Suffice to say, for the man on the street, net neutrality, of the absence of it, makes a huge difference to the way we all experience the internet. The India case above succinctly illustrates one of the issues but for a tongue-in-cheek view of how the absence of net neutrality could affect your experience and a light overview of the debate, go here (if your ISP allows it).
Why should net neutrality matter to ordinary consumers?
Application restrictionsThere have been more than a few violations of the net neutrality principle. Let’s take a brief look at just one news headline-grabbing example as reported in the media. In 2012, AT&T disabled wireless access to FaceTime, Apple’s video-chat service, iPhone customers unless they subscribed to a more expensive plan. AT&T said their bandwidth couldn’t handle the traffic. Critics said it was because the app competed with AT&T’s own telephony offerings. The FCC prohibits wireless companies from blocking apps that compete with their own voice and video services. So, the company was forced to do an about-turn after the threat of an FCC complaint on net-neutrality grounds. But, it did so reluctantly.
Case closed. Or is it? An interesting article by Robert Graham at Security Boulevard argues that the FCC allowed these restrictions for good reasons. The claims made by AT&T says Graham, that its network couldn’t handle the traffic at the time were real and, anyway, the organisation didn't actually have its own video-calling service. Really?
If you can figure it out, you be the judge.
Innovation meltdownTechnology companies like Google, Apple, Amazon and Netflix support net neutrality, while providers like Verizon and AT&T are against it. Both sides argue that their stance is the highway to increased innovation and even economic growth.
- The technology giants say: If they, as content producers, have to get into a bidding war with ISPs to deliver their content quickly, they will have less money to innovate. Without the principle of net neutrality, many of these technology giants who started out as small dot-coms may not have made it big because they wouldn’t have been able to compete against industry giants.
- The providers say: If they can charge the technology giants based on how much bandwidth they consume, they can offer consumers more innovative, customisable packages to suit their individual needs.
Orwell’s 1984Without net neutrality, providers could distort the dissemination of information in favour of a particular brand, political party, or even race or religion (for a price). They would be entitled to block free speech or prevent dissident voices from speaking freely online.
Threats to competitionWithout competition in any industry, there is no real incentive for monopolies to go the extra mile to retain existing customers and create innovative new products to tempt new customers. Large companies will favour their own interests and those of their sister companies, partners, providers and suppliers.
Net neutrality enables the small internet players to compete with the big guys on a level playing field. One example is YouTube. Started in a garage with very little capital, it was able successfully to compete with Google Video. Both companies’ videos were streamed at the same bandwidth with no preferential treatment or extra cost to either player. The astonishing result: YouTube was, and is, the firm favourite for viewers. The company was so successful that Google bought it in 2006.