What Is Net Neutrality and Why Is It So Important?

Net Neutrality is a hot issue right now being argued out viciously by the courts.

It affects you today, and could spell disaster in future if governments don’t support it.

Yet shockingly, most people aren’t even aware of it.

What is Net Neutrality?

Essentially, it wants equal internet access for all, and to stop any kind of internet discrimination.

You might think that’s what we have already, right?

For the most part, we do (democratic countries anyway). However, this is severely under threat.

Why?

Well, who controls the source of your internet?

Internet service providers.

After all, the internet comes through their cables.

Internet service providers are private companies with a lot of power. And if they’re not regulated, they will take advantage to make more money.

They can control everything about your internet, from charges to content to speed.

They can block any website they want and slow down your speeds anytime they want.

What’s more, they can discriminate against different types of users, for example creating ‘fast lanes’ for premium users or companies and ‘slow’ lanes for others.

They can also play favorites with companies that pay them more, or even their own products, such as creating their own video streaming service and then slowing down or charging more for others.

All this starts to create an unfair, premium internet, where individuals and companies have to start to pay more and more to ISPs just to maintain speeds or the market share they used to have.

Think this is unlikely?

Actually, all of these examples have already happened. And they’re going to happen a lot more after a shock 2018 ruling in the US effectively ended net neutrality rules.

How Net Neutrality could change the Internet

As you can imagine, the full potential of an internet with no net neutrality is pretty frightening.

The internet might become more like cable-TV subscriptions, with different services available at different prices.

For example, cheaper packages might be able to access the ISP’s own video-streaming and messaging apps, but you might have to pay even more for Netflix or Facebook.

Companies would have to pay ISPs to avoid being cut out. The bigger companies would quickly dominate, reducing competition, which is always a bad deal for consumers.

Smaller companies with new technologies would struggle to break in, damaging innovation.

Imagine if this had been the case for the video streaming movement in the early 2000s? We might not have YouTube, Netflix, and everything else.

In the worst case scenario, the internet would be divided into “slow lanes” and “fast lanes” depending on how much you pay.

Aside from being incredibly annoying to pay extra to Netflix and chill, this could also widen the poor-rich gap.

Students could struggle to access learning resources, especially distance learning, like videoconferencing or streaming lectures.

Many of those in developing countries could be completely left out, making it way harder for them to develop.

What’s more, it leaves the internet free to be influenced by anyone with deep pockets and a particular agenda. For example, advertisers, politicians, social networks that want to be number one. The list goes on.

Politicians could pay to suppress or manipulate views or movements that don’t fit with their agenda, such as #BlackLivesMatter or global warming, as well as promoting propoganda.

You might think this is some kind of dystopian fantasy.

(I mean, politicians paying to skew election results online….that would never happen, right?)

The above outline worst case scenarios, but let’s not be naive. In a free market with no regulation, why wouldn’t ISP’s start finding ways to charge companies or users more?

Plus, only a handful of companies control most of the US’s internet, giving them quite a monopoly.

Clearly, strict regulation is needed to ensure this amazing resource stays free and equal.

Net Neutrality: the critics

Crazy as it may sound, not everyone supports the idea of net neutrality.

Critics say that it actually obstructs internet freedom.

They are of the opinion that an unregulated market promotes better competition and lower prices, creating a better, faster, cheaper internet.

They worry regulation will reduce investment, and progress.

Some also worry that the government is going to eventually completely control the internet in some bureaucratic, socialist nightmare, do it inefficiently, tie the hands of ISPs so they can’t manage traffic properly, and screw up the internet.

It’s basically the same kind of arguments as for those that support deregulation in other industries, like healthcare.

For example, ‘zero-rating’ contracts, as we’ll discuss below, actually do offer free services for users, seemingly giving them a better deal.

However, supporters say these practices are anti-competitive and give consumers a worse deal overall in the long run.

Other critics say worries over net neutrality are unfounded or just political scaremongering.

The crazy history of Net Neutrality in the US

How it all began….

2003: Cox and Comcast block VPNs for free users

This sparked the beginning of worries about the powers of ISPs. They briefly asked users to ‘upgrade‘ to premium accounts for VPN access.

2003: ‘Net Neutrality’ term invented

The term ‘Net Neutrality’ is first coined by Columbia University law professor Tim Wu in a paper about online discrimination.

2005: A small ISP blocks VoIP

Madison River Communications, a small ISP in North Carolina, blocks a VoIP service called Vonage. It was fined and ordered to unblock it by the FCC.

This is one of the first cases that enforced net neutrality.

2007: Comcast blocks/throttles BitTorrent

Comcast blocks or throttles access to BitTorrent, including for legal files. The FCC orders Comcast to stop, but Comcast denies throttling anything and then sues the FCC saying it can throttle anything as much as it likes…..and wins. This sets a dangerous precedent.

2009: iPhone users blocked from Skype

Apple blocks Skype for iPhone users, after AT&T ask. They eventually stop after pressure from the FCC.

2010: Google and Verizon try to destroy net neutrality for wireless internet

They proposed that wired internet should be regulated, but wireless internet wasn’t ready for net neutrality and a premium internet should be allowed.

Fortunately, no one agreed to it.

2012: AT&T block Facetime unless users change to their new data plan

AT&T wanted users to convert to a new billing structure, so they blocked FaceTime for all customers who weren’t on that particular billing structure. Talk about penalizing customers.

AT&T were unapologetic and argued that net neutrality rules don’t apply to pre-installed apps like FaceTime, and the FCC can’t stop it.

2012: Comcast tries to cheat the market

This is a strange one. Comcast gave Comcast customers unlimited access to its new video streaming service, not counting it against their data plan. This is called ‘zero rating’.

That might not sound like a big deal. It’s just free stuff for Comcast users right? But it gives Comcast a market advantage over other streaming services by abusing its powers as an ISP. It goes completely against the principle of net neutrality.

It’s a bit like Google listing its own shopping services above the competition in its search engine, which the EU deemed anti-competitive and illegal.

ISPs could use this to create a ton of services and easily eliminate the competition, giving it unimaginable power. Your ISP wouldn’t just be your ISP, but much of the internet as well.

Understandably, Netflix got mad and the FCC ruled it broke net neutrality rules.

2014: Netflix pays ISPs for faster internet

Netflix users with Comcast as their ISP experienced slow speeds, and Comcast made Netflix pay extra for a faster service.

Normally, services like Netflix use middle men to distribute traffic, but when they get huge they outgrow the infrastructure and need a direct connection from ISPs, called ‘peering’ or ‘interconnection’.

Only the big 4 ISPs (Comcast, Time Warner Cable, AT&T, and Verizon) wouldn’t give this for free (all others did). Netflix had to pay for a ‘fast lane’.

Again, this is ISP’s abusing their power and charging a premium for speed. The ISPs argued that this wasn’t a ‘fast lane’ as such, but a ‘HOV lane’ which somehow wouldn’t decrease speeds for others. This seems unlikely.

In 2015 the FCC voted to allow complaints about peering (though with no promises of what the rulings would be).

2015: Other companies want to pay for faster speed

Inevitably following Netflix, other streaming services want so-called ‘HOV lanes’, and are willing to pay for it. This plays right into the hands of ISPs, where companies have to pay more and more just to avoid being slower than the competition.

2015: New net neutrality rules

The FCC introduce a landmark ‘Open Internet Order’. This outlines new net neutrality rules, with clear policies for no blocking, no throttling and no paid prioritization in a detailed 400-word document.

2015: AT&T throttles speeds

AT&T throttled those on unlimited data plans if they used up a lot of data, but they buried this clause in the fine print so customers had no idea. The FCC fined them $100 million, and since then unlimited data plans make their ‘fair usage’ clause clear.

2016: FCC chairmen intend to reverse net neutrality rules

Republican FCC commissioners write a letter to ISPs following the new Trump administration, stating they were against the 2015 net neutrality rules and want to revisit them as soon as possible.

2017: AT&T and others successfully cheat the market

Just like Comcast, AT&T gives itself unfair market advantage by making its streaming service unlimited to its users, not counting towards any data caps.

It even went one step further, letting other companies pay them to have the same advantage.

The FCC ruled against them, however under the new Trump administration the FCC vowed not to punish them.

Since then, other ISPs like Verizon are cheating the market in the same way, and the FCC aren’t doing anything about it.

2018: Net neutrality rules reversed

The 2015 net neutrality laws set up by the FCC are officially reversed by the FCC in a shock ruling. They called their order ‘Restoring Internet Freedom’.

This effectively ends net neutrality in the US. However, the government ruled that they can’t stop individual states from making their own laws.

2018: California tries to pass its own net neutrality rules

In response, individual states tried to pass their own laws, including California, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.

California signed their bill, but remarkably was aggressively sued within hours by the Trump administration and ISPs. This put them in a lengthy legal battle, preventing them from enacting it.

2019: FCC let AT&T hide their speed tests

In 2011, the FCC ruled that ISPs should use a third-party speed test to report speeds to the government for an annual consumer report.

But in 2020, the FCC suddenly agreed that AT&T would no longer have to use the third-party test, but their own AT&T test.

They even got the FCC to remove slow speed results from the report, including individual houses.

The legal insanity behind Net Neutrality

The whole legal argument about Net Neutrality in the US is based on just one factor.

In 1934, the Communications Act was passed, which created the FCC and aimed to regulate communications with clear rules.

One section, called Title 1, spelled out the rules for wire and radio. These rules weren’t very strict.

Another, Title 2, spelled out rules for telephone carriers, which were much stricter.

Is the internet more like wire and radio, or telephone? That’s what lawyers are arguing incessantly over.

The 2015 ruling by the FCC settled it once and for all and made it clear that the internet came under Title 2.

That is, until the Trump administration reversed it.

But the question itself is bizarre.

After all, when cable TV came along, they created a whole new title within the Communications Act, Title 6. This makes heaps of sense, since TV is totally different.

And the internet, I think we can all agree, is even more of a different beast to radio or telephone.

What about other countries?

This article has focused on the US so far. What’s the state of net neutrality in other countries?

Canada

Canada have got their act together way better than the US, with robust net neutrality laws. The Federal Telecommunications Act of 1993 clearly defines the internet as ‘utilities’, squashing any debate.

There have been a few instances of ISPs trying it on, but the CRTC (Canada’s version of the FCC) have always kept them in line. For example, in 2017 they swiftly ruled that all data must be counted against a user’s data cap, after Videotron tried the typical ‘zero rating’ trick. Well done, Canada.

Europe

The EU also has strict net neutrality rules stating that ‘providers of internet access services shall treat all traffic equally, when providing internet access services, without discrimination, restriction or interference’.

However, in the UK for example, smartphone providers are providing zero rating data plans, with certain services not counting towards your data cap, such as Apple Music, Netflix and Facebook Messenger. They get away with this because it’s not technically ‘broadband’. It’s a worrying trend.

And once the UK leaves the EU, who knows what might happen.

India

In contrast to the US, in 2018 the government unanimously approved perhaps the strongest net neutrality regulations in the world.

This may partly be in response to the dodgy ‘Free Basics’ internet Facebook tried to introduce to India in 2015, a ploy to monopolize the internet for poorer people, which again the telecoms regulator swiftly banned.

In India, two-thirds of the population still don’t have access to internet, but this will soon change with smartphones and cheaper data.

The government want to ensure that this new internet boom is free and fair for all, which will no doubt help India’s development.

To sum up, the US is falling very far behind. However, the new US ruling has got other countries worried about the future impact on net neutrality worldwide.

The future of Net Neutrality

Net neutrality was on an upward trend in the US until the Trump administration.

Although ISPs were increasingly trying to abuse their power, and the Netflix issue started to set a precedent for faster ‘HOV lanes’, prosecution was increasing until the FCC developed clear, landmark rules in 2015.

However, the election of Trump marked a complete U-turn for net neutrality.

The 2015 FCC ruling was reversed, and now net neutrality has effectively ended in the US.

It doesn’t seem that way right now, of course. Change will be gradual.

Right now, ISPs are rampantly cheating the markets, and are also charging sneaky and unacceptable fees. These violations will gradually increase.

Unless a new administration with vastly different policies comes into power, net neutrality will likely gradually dissolve, until we pass the point of no return. The internet will be a very different place years from now, and will no longer be free and fair to all.

Other countries, at least, seem to have their acts together with much clearer and stricter rules.

However, the US wields great global power and has demonstrated that laws can quickly change, and changes in political parties and structures (such as the EU) could represent a significant threat to net neutrality.

What can you do?

In the US, some are fighting to repeal the 2018 rule reversal, as well as support individual states to make their own laws.

In 2020 they actually managed to pass a ‘Save The Internet’ act in the House, but unfortunately this was later rejected by the Senate. However, in December 2020, Mozilla and Public Knowledge filed an appeal.

The 2020 elections also represent a possible change in policy, with most Democrat candidates supporting net neutrality.

You can join organizations that are campaigning to restore net neutrality laws.

Battle For The Net‘s progress

Battle For The Net and Public Knowledge make it easy for people to spread the word, contact senators to increase public pressure, or donate to their cause.

One of the biggest problems is that a lot of people just take net neutrality for granted and aren’t even aware it’s under threat, so even just telling your friends and family, and posting on social networks, could really help the cause.

Either way, the next couple of years may be key in setting the stage for the future of internet.


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