“Net Neutrality” is a phrase we may be hearing more often in the coming months
So what is it?
“Net neutrality” is the concept that all data that whizzes around all of the internet is dealt with in exactly the same way irrespective of its content, source, or destination. So, for instance, if you visit my website (www.davidleonard.london, as if you didn’t know) and click on a menu option to display a particular page, then all of the computers that are involved in delivering that page to your browser (including your ISP – your “Internet Service Provider”) will treat my page in exactly the same way as they would treat, say, a request to Netflix to deliver a movie to you. Delivery of my page will not be slowed down because I’m just a one-man band. Delivery of the movie won’t be speeded up because it’s important that movies are “streamed” quickly and Netflix have paid one or more entities to get it delivered quickly. You might want to pay your ISP more money to have ALL of your internet traffic delivered more quickly (eg by moving from ADSL to fibre optic) but your ISP will not differentiate between the traffic that it delivers to you.
No-one at any stage “judges” the content and decides that anything is more (or less) worthy or important than anything else. Net neutrality means that pornography, Facebook, and the weather forecast are all treated just the same – x megabytes of content from one provider travel across the internet, and are delivered by ISPs, as quickly as x megabytes from another. Of course, the website that is serving the content may send it out quickly or slowly, and your own internet connection may be quicker or slower, but there is no discrimination in transit in terms of the type of content or who sent it or who requested it. The principle of net neutrality also says that your ISP is not entitled to decide what content you are allowed to download and what you are not.
What is the alternative?
One alternative would be for the senders of data to be able to pay for preferential treatment. So, Netflix for example might be interested in paying to get their movies delivered to you more quickly so that you don’t spend ages downloading it or experience “buffering” if you are streaming it. They could pay your ISP to bring this about.
Another example of something that could happen if net neutrality is ended is that ISPs could decide not to allow their customers access to certain websites at all (if, for instance, they themselves offered a competing product or if they chose to take some moral stance against a particular website or particular type of content).
But this is all more complicated than a simple, straight-forward case of “free competition” versus “meddling”. One view of “free competition” says that if someone wants to pay for a better service then they should be entitled to do so. The opposite point of view says that “free competition” demands that everyone is on “a level playing field”.
Why will we be hearing more of this issue?
During President Obama’s administration, the US Federal Communications Commission committed the US to new regulations that supported the principles of net neutrality. I think maybe you can guess what’s coming next. Yes, President Trump has appointed a chair of the FCC who wants to abandon net neutrality. The FCC is currently seeking public opinion on the matter and so you may come across websites that are openly lobbying for one side or the other.
But we are in the UK, not the US!
The situation in the EU is that net neutrality is written into the guidelines published by BEREC last year (BEREC is “The Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications, representing EU national regulators).
It’s hard to imagine, though, that we wouldn’t be massively affected by an abandonment of net neutrality in the USA. And post Brexit? Better ask David Davies.
The images in this blog post were taken from the following websites (respectively), discussing net neutrality from a US point of view: