Net neutrality. One of those terms of which we’ve heard, but perhaps have difficulty explaining. In this post, we’ll cover what it is and why it matters. Because you will, or more likely, will have noticed dozens and dozens of big-time companies, such as Amazon and YouTube, intentionally slowing down their services on 12th July, objecting to the possible erosion of net neutrality. If it matters to the likes of these, it should matter to you.
So, what is net neutrality? It’s the principle that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and governments shouldn’t favour data, speeding up access to some parts of the net and slowing it down for others (hence companies mimicking potentially slower speeds in protest on 12th July), for example. Speeds should be constant, no matter what you’re trying to get to within the law.
That sounds innocuous, but as net neutrality advocates are keen to point out, it provides an entry point for ISPs to regulate freedom of thought and expression, and throttle content served by other ISPs to dampen competition.
Why is it in the news, why the day of action on 12th July? Simply put, a new American President in the guise of Donald Trump has meant a new direction, one that looks like weakening net neutrality.
In 2015, the US Federal Communications Commission, the government agency responsible for regulating the internet in the States, tightened up rules, putting ISPs in the same category as other public utilities and safeguarding net neutrality. It was regarded as a win by civil campaigners.
But Trump has put net neutrality opponent, Ajit Pai, in charge of the Commission. He’s stated publicly that the 2015 regulations – known as ‘Title II’ – are too much of a burden for ISPs, suppressing investment amongst them and, he alleges, meaning low income and rural areas are consequently missing out on better internet speeds.
Net neutrality? He thinks visions of mass censorship and uncompetitive practices are hysteria. In reality, it’s cutting off a vital revenue source – companies paying ISPs to deliver faster speeds to their sites.
Muddying the waters further, Comcast, a leading American ISP, has come out saying that, while it opposes Title II, it shouldn’t be interpreted as standing against net neutrality. Though fully supportive of enforceable net neutrality rules, Title II they claim simply goes too far. Mirroring Pai, they’ve cited the $3.6 billion fall in investment amongst the US’s 12 largest ISPs as a direct result of its heavy-handedness.
So, the picture’s a complex one, with good arguments for change or keeping things the same. And be under no doubt, just because these regulatory changes are occurring on the other side of the Pond, it doesn’t mean that UK internet users escape unscathed. Firstly, we could experience variable speeds accessing American sites from here if net neutrality’s weakened and, more speculatively, it could set a precedent for regulatory changes here, where although covered by EU net neutrality law, there’s the opportunity to revise this following Brexit.
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