Ever dreamt of building the next VICE, Amazon or Google? Listen up. Whether you have come across the term net neutrality before or not, it will effect you and the future of the internet. We thought we’d bring you up to speed on what net neutrality is all about and why you should pay attention to the debate. Take a deep breath, it's going to get deep.
What is net neutrality?
The internet, of course, is one of the most revolutionary socio-cultural advancements in history. Net neutrality is that democratic principle that underpins the very nature of the internet and has done since the beginning. It is the notion that every person or company has the freedom to communicate equally online, an open platform to find a voice or grow a business. This access should be free from corporate control, all data is treated equal and undisrupted. For many, it's a sacred notion that should not be undermined.
How is net neutrality in danger?
Internet Service Providers (ISPs) carry information from servers to your computer on their cables or networks. They are the middle men whose role is essential in allowing you to connect to the content you want.
Controversially, in the United States, a court decision in January meant that ISPs had the right to block websites or online communications at their own discretion. The Supreme Court then declared that unless the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reclassifies ISPs as 'telecommunications providers' rather than 'information providers', then ISPs can legally continue to interrupt the information they provide if it does not comply with the ISP's company terms. A reclassification is exactly what net neutrality protesters want, to protect an open internet as a telecommunications provider has no legal right to interrupt the kind of information that passes through their networks.
What's the fear?
The fear is that the ISPs will begin to censor information. By getting big companies to pay a toll, ISPs could threaten or block sites that don’t pay up, thus preventing you, the user, freedom of the internet. What we could see, in turn, are contracts or deals forming between ISPs and big companies. Smaller or independent online media sites and businesses could then be penalised with slow connection speeds - let’s call it data discrimination - because they can’t pay up or the ISP has a contract with a rival service. This means that despite the fact that you, the consumer, are still paying your ISP a monthly fee for open and free access to the internet, your browsing will be subject to that ISPs unregulated discretional censorship.
ISPs have called this unfounded. They say they want to provide a two tiered internet where those big companies that pay premium are allotted faster internet connections and data transfer than those who don’t (a bit like a fast lane on the motorway that you’d need to pay a toll to use). Many big companies like Amazon, Youtube and Netflix, as well as thousands of internet users, have all voiced opposition to handing control across to the ISPs.
Netflix vs Comcast
Netflix and Comcast have been at it since they signed a deal and it’s really inflamed tensions. Here’s the breakdown of what it’s all about, since it's the first real instance of violating net neutrality:
Netflix accounts for 30% of all internet traffic in the US, making it one of the internet’s most important online video content companies. Internet Provider Comcast then approached Netflix to complain about who was going to pay for all the data going through their network, the consumer is already paying a Netflix subscription and a rolling ISP contract. Netflix, to ensure the continued quality of video streaming for their Comcast users signed a deal with the ISP. Since then Verison, another American ISP, complained that if Netflix was paying Comcast for quality internet streaming then why should they miss out. Netflix has now signed a deal with Verison too, to end the unspoken threat that the ISP will provide Netflix with slower network access.
That said, as the ISPs queue up, Netflix has become very vocal about the importance of net neutrality. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings shared his displeasure at having to sign these deals to secure high streaming speeds for his customers. He claimed Netflix had “no power… [and] reluctantly signed”. Hastings argued that "the bigger Comcast gets, the more they want to charge everyone else” encouraging competition between ISPs as a way of preventing monopolisation.
What about neutrality in the UK?
Good news for Europeans is that the EU is at odds with the US in this debate. The EU Parliament voted in April to restrict ISPs from charging companies for network access. By 2015 it could be a Europe-wide law that protects against not only internet restrictions but mobile providers doing the same. The UK falls under this legislation, although unlike the Netherlands, Slovenia, Brazil and Chile, has not adopted it into our own national law.
The internet is a worldwide network. In the UK we constantly use the services of US businesses - like Netflix, who in lieu of the Comcast deal put their subscription prices up in Europe. If the US suppresses net neutrality we could see the cost rise to the consumer, as companies compete for favour on the ISP’s data streams - which will effect us this side of the Atlantic.
The internet is now as part of our human story as the printing press was. An explosion of knowledge and sharing, learning and connection. It’s a marker for our age and evolution as a species. Net neutrality, as the default premise of the internet so far, has created space for growth, voice and community.
The open internet is a global phenomenon that has championed free speech, kick started revolutions in the East, exposed the injustice of governments and inspired entrepreneurial spirit. The ancient city of Dubrovnik, in modern Croatia, was also a hub of knowledge, wealth, progress and enlightenment. It was even one of the first places in Europe to outlaw slavery and slave trading, doing so in 1416. The city’s old motto reveals a guiding principle that protected their Republic for hundreds of years, “Liberty is not sold for all the gold in the world”. Does this ring true now and does the freedom of an open internet outweigh it's value as a corporate commodity? We are truly at a crossroad with the current debate; do we resist censorship absolutely or entrust Internet Service Providers as gatekeepers of content? Freedom or gold?