What is net neutrality?
Net neutrality is the idea that the internet should be free, fair, and open. According to this principle, internet service providers (ISPs) are expected to grant users access to the internet without interference. Therefore, they should treat all traffic data the same, no matter what sites you visit or what services you use.
It means that everyone can have access to all websites without being slowed down or completely blocked. That is also a way to prevent ISPs from prioritizing certain types of content or specific applications and web services over others.
Net neutrality rules were created to ensure that your cable or phone company treats all web traffic equally by not playing favorites. Those rules were adopted in the United States in 2015, after many years of public debate, and then revoked in 2017.
Why is net neutrality important to internet users?
Net neutrality is an essential concept for internet users who want to see the internet stay free and open. The idea establishes that everyone on the internet should have equal access and equal opportunity to use the internet.
Without net neutrality, big corporations could take away access to your favorite websites and hurt the open internet. The absolute neutrality on the web needs to be protected for people, not big corporations, to control their internet fair access and usage.
Before its adoption and after its repeal, there were several cases of open internet violations by broadband companies and carriers.
In one notorious incident, Verizon throttled the Santa Clara fire department during a California wildfire, obstructing the firefighter’s capability of providing an adequate response to the crises.
Why is net neutrality bad for internet service providers?
In short, net neutrality imposes government regulation over Telcom corporations’ activity. They claim those rules bring elevated costs and make it difficult for them to invest in network expansion and improvement. Furthermore, those companies are under the constant watch of regulators and have to be accountable for their practices and actions.
We don’t know precisely what impact net neutrality can have on each country’s unique reality. Still, we can assume that it’s positive as it protects users from being affected by companies trying to get a higher cut of their money while playing dirty in many cases.
What are the pros and cons of net neutrality?
Pros of net neutrality
Make ISPs play by the rules: Users are consistently hit with unfair and otherwise illegal practices by companies that profit from consumers’ lack of knowledge;
No data caps or additional tiers: Internet providers monitor traffic data and bandwidth usage on an individual level, slowing down the connection of power users and offering them package add-ons at extra fees to increase revenue;
No paid prioritization (fast-lane contracts): ISPs have been caught many times on arrangements to favor certain web services and companies to the detriment of competitors, providing a fast lane for partners and slowing down the competition.
It became even more concerning as most broadband corporations own content services that could benefit from this kind of discrimination;
Prevent Telecom monopolies: Unfortunately, it has become common for providers to engage in partnerships to establish regional monopolies, dividing countries into territories where only one ISP will be available, thus, charging how much they want for their exclusive service;
Avoid third-party control and censorship: With full powers, ISPs can determine what users can or cannot access, influence preferences and behavior based on biased performance in favor of websites with content they agree with or benefit from.
In many countries, ISPs collaborate with law enforcement agencies and practice indirect censorship and surveillance on behalf of so-called “democratic” governments.
“A neutral network might be designed without legal prodding – as in the original internet. In an ideal world, either competition or enlightened self-interest might drive carriers to design neutral networks.”
Tim Wu, Professor at Columbia Law School
Cons of net neutrality
Reduced business margins: With neutrality, internet providers cannot charge users based on individual data usage and offer higher-priced tiers. Telecom companies argue that costs are higher and revenue is limited. That is not accurate, though;
Less control over content: Democracy also has some drawbacks. With more liberty comes less control. That applies to all kinds of content, even illegal and possibly harmful ones;
Excessive governmental regulation: Neutrality opponents also complain about extreme government control, which reduces the array of market practices at their disposal. Being hold accountable for their actions doesn’t seem to please executives.
How could net neutrality affect you in practice?
Net neutrality can affect you in many ways in your personal life. For example, if your favorite streaming service doesn’t pay your ISP for a fast-lane connection. In cases like that, slow speeds and buffering result from paid prioritization contracts favoring the competition.
The same is true for your preferred news portals, sites, and other web services. If company executives or sponsors deem those not beneficial or partner up with other websites, you may also have trouble accessing it.
In the case of power users, ISPs will probably bottleneck the web traffic or impose data caps on their service packages. That way, they’ll limit internet usage or force upgrades to higher service tiers.
“Creativity, innovation and a free and open marketplace are all at stake in this fight.”
Eric Schmidt, Former Google CEO
From a more collective perspective, internet providers can manipulate the market, interfere in politics, and erode democracy when not held accountable for their actions. At its worse, unregulated telecommunications companies can become a severe threat to civil rights and the free market itself.
A brief history of net neutrality regulations
Net neutrality has always been a controversial topic because it involves the power of broadband providers. The history of internet neutrality in the United States – where the concept was first discussed – is filled with ups and downs. These are the key facts within the timeline:
2002 – Comcast started blocking VPN use and is accused of collecting personal data about its users;
2003 – Columbia Professor Tim Wu coined the term “net neutrality” in one of his works. Researches had started to worry about market practices adopted by companies like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T in the US;
2005 – ISP Madison River Communications blocked the VOIP service Vonage.
2005 – George W. Bush fined ISPs for trying to restrict competition;
2007 – Comcast started covertly blocking its users from using file-sharing platforms such as BitTorrent. Independent researchers affirmed that the company was undoubtedly restricting the use of those applications by their users;
2015 – US Congress passed the Internet Neutrality Act under the Obama administration, establishing rules to protect internet users;
2017 – The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) repealed neutrality rules. This move was a significant step towards letting companies like Comcast and AT&T decide what the public gets and what it doesn’t —this includes websites and online services such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, social media, and news portals;
2021 – President Biden placed an executive order to restore net neutrality rules, but it still needs for the fifth member of the FCC commissioners to be nominated.
How is net neutrality in the US in 2021?
In 2021, as I write this article, President John Biden is taking steps to reinstate net neutrality rules in the US. The FCC recently repealed the regulations under the Trump administration, which had appointed Ajit Pai, strangely a former Verizon executive, as the agency’s new chairman.
Despite what it may look like initially, that’s not a simple matter of political dispute. It is worth mentioning that both previous US presidents, George W. Bush (Republican) and Barack Obama (Democrat), supported net neutrality. It seems to be a lot more than just politics behind that decision.
How is net neutrality in other countries?
Net neutrality has different statuses depending on the country we’re talking about. Freedom House, an institution that assesses the level of internet freedom around the globe, publishes annual reports on the matter under the title of Freedom on the Net.
They even created a neat interactive map to show how the issue spreads worldwide.
According to the most recent edition, in 2020, 26 of 65 countries assessed experienced a deterioration in internet freedom.
What happens if I do not support net neutrality?
If dictated by corporate interests, internet dysregulation can subject consumers to all sorts of unfair, unethical, and even illegal market practices. If regulated according to political bias, it can lead to censorship. Both interest groups can turn network regulations into private affairs as opposed to the public interest.
Fundamental human rights such as free speech, free access to information, and freedom of expression are slowly being limited and removed in many countries. In an unregulated environment, the internet can quickly become a mined ground both for citizens and consumers.
“I’m still an optimist, but an optimist standing at the top of the hill with a nasty storm blowing in my face, hanging on to a fence. We have to grit our teeth and hang on to the fence and not take it for granted that the web will lead us to wonderful things.”
Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web.
What is the future of net neutrality?
What the future will bring to net neutrality, no one can tell. But you can be sure of one thing: without governments compromised with the legitimate public interest, conscious citizens, and consumers, it’s hard to see a beautiful landscape on the horizon.
Society as a whole must demand Telecom companies to play fair. These corporations have to follow strict rules and seek objectives they committed to when asked for exploring a public concession.
How can you prevent ISP control over the internet?
Usually, you can avoid internet throttling or content blocking by encrypting your traffic data and changing your IP address. The easiest way to do both is by using a VPN service.
While routing your traffic through its private network, a VPN keeps your data private and unreadable. This way, any network blocks aimed towards specific activities, websites, or services won’t work with you, as one cannot tell what you’re doing online.
In the same way, when you use a capable VPN service over your internet connection, your actual IP is hidden, meaning you cannot be identified and restricted by the amount of data and bandwidth you use. After all, internet providers stand by unlimited internet usage most of the time.