What is net neutrality and why is it a major issue?

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By Nguyen Bui Vu

On November 21, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States released a plan to terminate major regulations that ensure equal access to Internet services, marking a path for companies to charge users more money to see certain content and to curtail access to some websites.

The plan was drawn up by the FCC chairman Ajit Pai, which included many repeals of rules put in place during the Obama administration. The rules prevent internet service providers (ISPs) from tampering with the network speed. They also prevent such companies from issuing extra charges for high-quality streaming and other services.

The announcement sparked a debate regarding free speech and Internet control, pitting telecom companies against internet companies (i.e. Google, Amazon, etc.). The internet companies warned that rolling back current regulations could make the telecom companies too powerful in controlling information and entertainment shown on the Internet. On the other hand, telecom companies complained that these current regulations prevent them from offering customers a wider selection of services at varying price points. With the fight for net neutrality going underway, some people may ask ‘What is net neutrality?’ and ‘Why is it a major issue?’.

So, what does net neutrality mean?

Net neutrality is the concept that data packets on the Internet should be treated impartially and fairly, regardless of content, destination or source. In a nutshell, it poses the argument that no bit of information should be given higher or lower priority than another. This concept implies that a network such as the Internet is at its most efficient and useful to the public when it is less focused towards a particular audience and instead focused on multiple users.

The concept also holds that wired and wireless Internet service is a utility similar to gas, water, electricity and phone landlines; it should be made available and subject to government regulation. For example, take two content providers such as YouTube and the Manchester Met website. With net neutrality upheld, both websites would pay their monthly fees to the network provider and if all else is kept equal, any bit of information from YouTube will make the same journey as one bit of information from the Manchester Met website. There would be no obstacles or shortcuts any of these websites can take to make the end users desire their content more.

However, take away net neutrality and network providers can then choose to discriminate and decide how fast data will be transmitted and at what quality. So in this example, a network provider like O2 or Sky can choose to prioritise data coming from YouTube over that of the MMU website. Information from YouTube will then be more desirable to the end users since it is much faster than the MMU website.

Why is net neutrality a major issue?

In the United States, ISPs and supporters of net neutrality disagree in deciding whether or not broadband internet is either an opt-in service or a necessary utility such as gas, water and electricity. If the internet is a utility, it must then be licensed by a government agency and customer data cannot be up for sale. When the telephone was considered as a utility, the Communications Act of 1934 established the FCC and granted the newly formed commission the power to regulate telephone service providers as entities that provide communication services to the general public for a fee (also known as common carriers).

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 did not subject the emerging Internet to common carrier regulations, but fourteen years later the FCC declared that American ISPs should be held to the same regulations as telecommunications carriers. The ruling, which was enacted under Obama, essentially designated broadband Internet as a utility, subject to governmental regulation under the FCC. In June 2016, a US federal court maintained the FCC’s ruling and ability to prevent broadband internet providers from slowing or blocking internet content delivery to end users. The ruling also prohibited such providers from prioritising traffic from websites and web services who are willing to pay more money for faster content delivery, a practice known as zero-rating.

ISPs favour a two-tiered service model that allows zero-rating and allows them to charge a higher fee for priority placement and faster speed across their network pipelines. They argue that current government regulation of the Internet is a superfluous barrier to innovation and economic growth. Those who have proposed a two-tiered model point out that it already exists since consumers already have the choice of using a slower dial-up internet service or paying a premium fee for faster speed over broadband. They also pointed out that ISPs often prioritise some traffic over other traffic to uphold the quality of service.

What happens when net neutrality rules are dismantled?

Once FCC chairman Ajit Pai’s plan to roll back net neutrality rules comes into effect, ISPs will jump at the chance to charge Internet companies for faster access to consumers and to block outside services they don’t like. The plan will also eliminate a number of consumer protections, including privacy requirements and rules banning unfair practices that give consumers a path to file complaints about price exploitation. Many people are worried that the new plan will set back small tech firms and leave ordinary people more at the mercy of cable and wireless companies. Start-ups and institutions that aren’t full of cash will be relegated to slower service, according to Corynne McSherry, legal director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group dedicated to maintaining digital rights.

Broadband providers such as Verizon, Comcast and AT&T have all committed to preserving an open and free Internet, although some critics didn’t take stock in those promises noting that many providers have used their networks before to put their rivals at a disadvantage. These providers may also try to lay groundwork for a two-tiered Internet model – one where companies and services that are lacking in cash are relegated to slower speeds, said Michael Cheah, general counsel of the video streaming service Vimeo. The FCC’s new plan under Pai’s leadership may have a strong chance of enactment at the next commission meeting in December. However, there is also an equally strong chance that lawsuits will follow to challenge the plan.

What do you think? Join the conversation over on Twitter @HumanityHallows

About the author / 

Natalie Carragher
Natalie Carragher

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