What is Net Neutrality, and Why Should You Even Care?

By Tom Pritchard on at

It was all going on at the European Parliament last week. After threatening and deliberating for what seems like an age, they finally put an end to networks charging extortionate roaming fees when people use their phones abroad. Pretty great right? Well it didn't come without its downsides, because by putting an end to roaming fees the European Parliament also put an end to net neutralityThat's really not a good thing. 

It's an argument about the freedom of the internet that started raging over in the US more than a year ago, which has taken on stark relevance to us here in the UK. Because it's not had that much attention over here, some of you out there may be wondering what this net neutrality malarkey actual is. Does it even matter to everyday people? The answer is yes, and let me explain why.

So what is net neutrality?

The concept of net neutrality has a fairly literal name, and the basic definition is that Internet Service Providers (ISP) have to treat every single website equally, taking a neutral standpoint if you will. What this means is that all websites get equal access to traffic, and global brands like Google or Amazon get treated exactly the same as a teenager's blog that gets one or two readers a month. Net neutrality is often cited as being the foundation of an open and free internet, and means everything on the web is open and easily accessible to all – without interference from third parties.

If you'd like that broken down to you in terms of internet porn (and who wouldn't), then make sure you check out this post (SFW, just about) from last year.

So how did the new rulings affect things?

While the ruling didn't necessarily end up saying "net neutrality isn't a thing anymore", it did leave some pretty big loopholes that offer exemptions to net neutrality as principle. It allows ISPs to open up an 'internet fast lane' for paying sites provided the rest of the internet is left alone. As Adam put it in the original news post, that's like saying assault is alright just as long as you're not violent most of the time.

Another exemption allows ISPs to discount certain websites against data caps, which is basically what Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook-powered Internet.org does. But we've all heard his thoughts on this topic already. The final biggy lets ISPs effectively create what is a 'caste system' that gives ISPs the authority to introduce "reasonable traffic management measures" that groups services into classes with speeds that can be slowed down or sped up at will.

So why should you care?

The new legislation is open to interpretation by the government of each EU country, so when it goes into effect in six months time it won't be a consistent across the continent. That means the fate of net neutrality in the UK is in the hands of David Cameron and the Conservative party, and they already have a pretty poor track record when it comes to online rights and understanding the basic principles of modern technology.

Let's take a look at some of the potential problems that may arise if net neutrality is allowed to die. (Before I begin, it is worth pointing out in the sake of fairness that earlier this year the UK's biggest internet providers did sign up to a code of practice to support a free and open internet. It's also worth mentioning that this is voluntary, and not a legally binding agreement.)

The internet fast lane likely won't be all it's cracked up to be

The principle of the internet fast lane is that a company can pay an provider in order to ensure faster traffic, so users won't be stuck waiting for everything to load or buffer. In theory, that sounds like a great idea right? Some websites will be faster, resulting in a better user experience. The problem here is working out where the extra bandwidth is going to come from.

Sure, ISPs could boost their infrastructure in order to have this dedicated fast lane while keeping the rest of the non-paying internet running at the speeds you're used to, but there's absolutely no guarantee that it will go down that way. You just need to look at BT's handling of Openreach to see that dealing with new infrastructure is not one of its strong suits.

In reality it's rather likely that the websites who refuse, or can't afford, to pay for fast-lane access will end up with throttled speeds. That would be cheaper and easier from a business perspective: the likes of Amazon, Facebook, Netflix, and so on would be fine, but a small business with three employees, say, might not be able to afford the extra fees which would leave them at a serious disadvantage. In extreme circumstances it could lead to a big drop in web traffic, and the loss of respective ad revenue could leave them to shut down. Hardly fair.

The big businesses won't be that fond of having their profit margins slashed like this, which would mean taking measures to earn their money back. That likely means upping prices or increasing the number of adverts you see – two things that nobody wants to deal with. If that were to happen, this 'fast lane' will leave you having to foot the bill while the ISPs get rich. As if you don't pay enough in line-rental fees anyway.

Or I could be wrong, they could end up playing it nice and ethically. Then again, how often does private business do things the ethical way?

No regulations means internet providers have all the power

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Without net neutrality and the idea that all web traffic is equal, all the power in what you see is left up to whoever provides the internet. Do you really want them to decide whether you are or are not allowed to see certain things? Letting internet providers pick and choose how traffic is handled is a huge advantage for them, and a serious problem for everyday people.

Have you ever been on the phone with a service, threatening to leave, only to find the person on the phone trying to offer you all sorts of deals and incentives to stay? That's because its generally accepted that it's easier and cheaper to keep an existing customer than it is to attract a new one. If the provider gets more control over what you see or do online, then keeping you as a customer becomes a lot easier. It's not unreasonable to assume that they will throttle sites that let you shop around for a better deal, just to make it that much harder for you to leave and get your internet services elsewhere.

Plus, if you have someone right at the top of the ISP with a particular agenda they want to impose there's very little about to stop them. Think about how people criticise NewsCorp-owned tabloids for pushing Rupert Murdoch's own opinions in the daily news, and think how that would play out across the web. There would be nothing in place to stop that ISP from throttling sites promoting opposing viewpoints.

The government potentially gets more control over what you see

A prime example of a country without neutral internet is China, the country where internet access is heavily censored and controlled by the government. A lot of opponents of net neutrality in the US have claimed that regulation means putting control of the internet in the hands of the government, when in fact the opposite is more likely. Without net neutrality it's not just the ISPs who get more control over what you see, the government does as well.

Remember how David Cameron decided that he was going to implement an opt-out system that blocked specific websites (like porn) under the guise of protecting children? Without net neutrality it becomes a lot easier for the powers-that-be to deny you access to content they don't want you to see, just without disguising it as something else. All they'd need to do is demand that the ISPs restrict access to certain content and keywords.

Of course, this would be part of a much bigger political issue an scrapping net neutrality isn't going to leave us with the level of censorship that there is in China. That said, an internet that isn't open and neutral would be one step along the way.

ISP transparency will be a thing of the past

(Image via Shutterstock)

At the moment ISPs don't have to be transparent about how they deal with internet traffic, though (as mentioned before) the bigger names did sign up to an agreement that promises just that. Without net neutrality in place there's nothing to encourage them to even bother disclosing this information. Remember, the Freedom of Information Act only applies to public authorities.

Over in the US there was a bit of a debacle with Netflix, because it was accusing American providers of deliberately slowing down user connections to the site. The ISPs denied this, and it became a case of each party saying they were playing nice without any solid proof either way. The problem was the internet providers didn't have to be transparent. With proper net neutrality guidelines in place then they would have to provide the relevant information when asked, just to cover their own backs and prove they aren't screwing anybody over.

Back in 2007 Plusnet was questioned about its traffic management, specifically the fact that it it was treating certain online services like peer-to-peer networking, VoIP, and online gaming differently to general web browsing. Plusnet gives up that information freely, but would it be so readily available if the law said that it didn't have to tell anyone?

The internet is more than just web browsing and watching videos. It's file sharing, gaming, communication, and so on. If you don't know what's being affected by your ISP then you can't keep tabs on how much you use it. Likewise, knowing which sites get throttled (god forbid) lets you make an informed choice on what sites and services you decide to use.

Is it going to be a big issue in the UK?

(Image via Shutterstock)

It's not entirely clear at this point. Unlike some countries, like the US and Canada, the overwhelming majority of people in the UK are not forced to choose between one internet provider or completely disconnecting from the web. That's not to say it doesn't happen, but relatively speaking it doesn't happen nearly as often as it does across the Atlantic.

For that very reason there is still fierce competition between providers to get your business, and if, say, Sky and BT decide to abandon net neutrality but Virgin and TalkTalk don't, then the first two might as well be throwing handfuls of customers at the competition. But that is, of course, dependent on customers actually realising what's going on.

As for the government, it's not impossible that they'd decide to ditch net neutrality, especially since our Conservative-led government has had a history of siding with private business. If there is pressure from internet providers to take advantage of the EU loopholes then there's a good chance that more than a few people in Westminster will be paying attention to what they have to say. If David Cameron can threaten to do something so monumentally stupid as ban encryption, deregulating internet providers doesn't seem too out of the question.

It's incredibly important to emphasise the importance of net neutrality. It's in your best interests, even if you prefer to think with your wallet and don't give a toss about things like freedom of speech and having open access to the most most important tool in the history of mankind.