What is net neutrality and why should you care?

Net neutrality has been a hotly debated topic ever since Columbia University Media Law professor Tim Wu coined the phrase way back in 2003. 

It's an important principle that has many strong supporters across the globe, many of whom have witnessed its protections erode over the last few years. This guide will explain exactly what it is and why you should care about it.

What is net neutrality? 

Net neutrality, simply put, is the principle that all internet communications should be treated equally. The primary entities implicated by such a principle are Internet Service Providers (ISPs) – the principle of net neutrality suggests they should treat all the data being transferred through their networks as equal. 

It would be against the principle, for example, to enact what is called 'zero-rating', which is when ISPs set their customers a monthly data limit and then offer bundles of specific apps and websites – 'add-on' packages – that you can purchase on top. The sites in their add-on packages are treated differently to websites that aren't. 

Why is net neutrality important?

Broadly, when net neutrality is not legally enforced, companies can steer you towards certain apps and websites by blocking or slowing down access to their competitors. This gives them the power to sculpt users' browsing experience and, considering how important the internet is to most people, their lives too. 

Net neutrality's importance to freedom of expression online cannot be understated. If internet content is going to be treated unequally, and the arbiter of this is your ISP, then you're not getting a free and fair field of information with which to form your own opinions. Net neutrality means ISPs can't just ban content if they do not like it. 

Network Neutrality principles are comparable in importance to principles of free speech. There is a long tradition that democracies have of protecting their vital communications channels

Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the World Wide Web (2006)

In a related way, Net neutrality is also a vital check on ISPs looking to expand their reach beyond the internet communications market. In the US, ISPs own news companies; NBC is owned by Comcast, for example, and Verizon is the parent company of Yahoo! News. If they were able to create data bundles that would force you into watching or viewing the news corporations they own or even slow down access to their rivals, this would give them an uncomfortable political influence.

In situations where such laws cannot be enforced, ISPs can inadvertently become tools of social exclusion. Net non-neutrality splits the internet up into tiers, with some websites only accessible to those who can pay the price. This will create demarcated information and entertainment channels, with the highest quality reserved exclusively for the wealthiest. 

Under robust net neutrality laws, internet users can't be charged extra for access to the most visited sites on the web. Take a streaming service like Hulu. Millions of people use this every month – and ISPs can see precisely how big that number is. In a world of net non-neutrality, those ISPs could simply charge you more for their bundles than include Hulu, or serve you a slower connection, because they know there's a high demand for the service. So, the laws mean they can't use the popularity of certain content or services to their advantage. 

To add to these points, many also think net neutrality has been a crucial factor in internet-based technological innovation; it lets the most successful ideas rise to the top. If ISPs were able to block or reduce access to music streaming services at will and slow down your connection to them in the mid-2000s, would a company like Spotify have ever got off the ground? It's unclear. 

A brief history of net neutrality in the US

Although most countries have their own net neutrality timelines, the US has often led the way and has a long and complicated history of internet regulation. It's not the only country with one, but it's certainly the most useful is seeing how different legal arguments have been made and why net neutrality is not enforced in the country today. 

1980s – The internet begins being used for commercial purposes, sparking a debate in America about the role of the internet in society. At this point, it was considered an information service; the question of whether these entities had any community-based duties to the service users is left open. 
Early 1990s – Internet continues to be treated as an information service designed for commercial purposes, rather than a telecommunications 'common carrier' service that could be regulated by the FCC. But politicians start to worry that the internet will become pivotal to daily life and thus need regulation. 
1996 – A major overhaul of the Telecommunications act takes place in 1996. It marks the first time the internet had been included in the 'broadcast and spectrum allotment' and could now be regulated by the government. 
Early 2000s – Some internet service providers ban their users from setting up VPNs and even stopping them from buying their own WiFi routers.
2003 – Columbia University professor Tim Wu coins the phrase 'Net neutrality'. 
2005 – Supreme Court votes that the FCC has the right to determine whether broadband counts as a form of telecommunications service and enforce the rules as they see fit. 
2005 – The first major case to invoke the concept of net neutrality begins when Madison River, a service provider in the state of North Carolina, is ordered by the FCC to stop blocking phone calls over the internet. They ended up paying a $15,000 'consent decree' penalty.
2008 – FCC upholds a complaint against Comcast for bandwidth throttling, but the provider successfully argues they can slow down connections as they please.
2009 – Apple is shown to have blocked Skype calls at provider AT&T's discretion, a practice which was swiftly halted by FCC pressure.
2010 – the Open Internet Order is signed by the FCC. This set out six principles for net neutrality, preventing cable television and telephone service providers from prohibiting site access – but it didn't bar them from marking up prices for quicker access.
2014 – DC court rules in favor of Verizon after provider sues the FCC over Open Internet Order, claiming the broadband internet, as an 'information service', was still not under their jurisdiction as they aren't 'common carriers'. This opens a debate about whether the FCC could actually enforce rules under Title II of the 1996 telecommunications act – the prevailing view from within the FCC – or whether ISPs needed to be reclassified as common carriers, something then-President Barack Obama was keen on.
2015 – ISPs are treated as telecommunication services subject to title II of the communications act. 
2017 – Ajit Pai made head of the FCC by then-President Donald Trump, and claims on arrival that he wanted to roll back the regulation. 
2018 – A repeal of title II is voted through by the FCC under Pai's leadership. 
2019 – Maine passes its own net neutrality laws and California reinstates the 2015 open internet order at the state level, and Maine produced its own bill on the subject. 
2020 – FCC votes to reaffirm the repeal of Title II. 

Where is net neutrality enforced today?

Although the US's history of internet regulation is, arguably, the most widely documented, there have been various different ways countries have dealt with the issue around the world – some have no net neutrality laws at all.

In the UK, communications regulator Ofcom is responsible for dealing with issues surrounding net neutrality. Their position is as clear as can be:

Your provider must not block access to, slow down (throttle), or discriminate in other ways between internet traffic on its network, unless it is necessary to do so for legal, security or emergency reasons

Ofcom

The EU, on the other hand, ruled in 2015 that all internet providers have to treat traffic equally, but left room for providers to slow down traffic when a network is at maximum capacity and for security reasons. Since then, there have been calls for the bloc to take a more hands-on approach to monitor ISPs rather than just dolling out fines. The EU also permits zero-rating under certain conditions.

Portugal engages in this practice. They regulate ISPs and prohibit them from blocking and throttling but not 'zero-rating' – omitting certain apps and sites from monthly data limits and creating partnerships with them to offer them exclusively. 

India, despite shutting down the internet in various regions of the country during times of unrest, claims to support the core maxims of net neutrality. Department of Telecommunications said in 2018: 

Government is committed to the fundamental principles and concepts of Net Neutrality i.e. keep the Internet accessible and available to all without discrimination. Internet Access Services, therefore, need to be governed by a principle that restricts any form of discrimination

India Department for Telecommunications

Over in Asia, Japan lacks a regulatory body to deal with issues like this directly, but has a culture of self-regulation built into its private telecommunications sector. The main companies used in Japan, however, are born out of an ex-state monopoly yet are grouped together and majority-owned by the government. 

Australia has no net neutrality laws – ISPs regularly offer zero-rated content. However, problems are mitigated by the fact that there are numerous ISPs relative to their population and robust consumer protection laws. However, a national debate about net neutrality has emerged in the past few years. 

Conversely – and perhaps quite unexpectedly – Russia's Draconian approach to internet censorship has not stopped its government from passing net neutrality laws that prohibit ISPs from blocking or slowing down access to websites – apart from those banned by the government, of course. 

Are there any arguments against net neutrality?

Some countries do not have net neutrality laws – their governments deploy extremely stringent censorship laws and exert such high control over their country's networks that it's often pointless to discuss their stance on net neutrality. 

However, there are some comparatively good-faith arguments against it. One such criticism from opponents is that net neutrality laws will make ISPs averse to investing in infrastructure improvement; laying down fiber-optic cables is incredibly costly.

The FCC claimed that after the Open Internet Order came into existence in 2015, broadband providers' total capital expenditure dropped by about 5%. But this was expected due to other factors, and according to this report investment actually went up.

Covid-19: the biggest argument for net neutrality?

Some experts have argued that the coronavirus pandemic has added weight to the net neutrality cause. The last 12-14 months will have seen network traffic on a scale unlikely seen before, as people continue to trundle on through lockdowns around the world. 

But the networks seem to be holding up just fine – there hasn't been a mass outcry from broadband providers unable to handle the increased requests. The challenge is simply that if they can manage the load in these unprecedented times...why did they need to slow users down to 'cope' with pre-pandemic traffic? 

What will happen in the future?

An internet based on the principle of net neutrality is far from guaranteed going forward, even in parts of the world that seem really on board with it.

In a perfect illustration of how quickly things can change, there are already circulating in the US that the new Biden administration will revive net neutrality and pressure the FCC into enforcing it.

Conclusion

Hopefully, you can now see the importance of keeping the internet open and why the principle of net neutrality is so important.

If you are being blocked, throttled, or slowed down thanks to a non-neutral internet, then there may be some ways to improve your situation using a VPN

Written by: Aaron Drapkin

After graduating with a philosophy degree from the University of Bristol in 2018, Aaron became a researcher at news digest magazine The Week following a year as editor of satirical website The Whip. Freelancing alongside these roles, his work has appeared in publications such as Vice, Metro, Tablet and New Internationalist, as well as The Week's online edition.

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