Net Neutrality and our internet freedom – should we be worried?
What is Net Neutrality?
Net neutrality is the term used to describe the concept that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) must give all of their customers the equal right to access all content over the internet, and not block certain areas of information or data. Simply put – it’s the idea that ISPs must not restrict what you access over the internet based on their agendas and policies, meaning they must have a neutral stance on what their users are allowed to access.
This translates to equality and fair use in all aspects of internet use, and conforms to the idea that all internet access should be unrestricted and equal. Following this concept, if an ISP blocks certain content from the consumer then it’s viewed as a threat to net neutrality and is actively preventing users from accessing what they want to access.
A real world example of this might be if an ISP gives you a slow connection specifically to the website of a competitor, or if you’re not able to view a certain youtube video due to your geographical location. If cases such as these occur, it’s clear that the ISP is enforcing direct control over what the user views and how they view it – which many see as an ever increasing threat to their freedom.
Why might an ISP want to restrict my access?
An ISP might want to restrict your access for a variety of reasons, however it most commonly boils down to eliminating competition, political opinions, and enforcing censorship.
If an ISP is given the freedom to limit how easily you can access their competitor’s content, this gives them the advantage – would you want to change service provider if their website takes forever to load? Taken a step further, ISPs could potentially completely block access to competitor’s content in an effort to retain their customer base, which directly interferes with the concept of freedom that the internet is based on.
When controversial political opinions are brought to the attention of an ISP, they might want to block access to this as it might paint them in a bad light. If their users are seeing incriminating news against them, this means that trust in their business is being lost – so they may want to prevent this. Or if there is specific propaganda which conflicts with the ISPs political opinions, they may also want to block this.
Censorship is another factor of net neutrality. If ISPs are given the power to restrict access to content, they may well block content which is traditionally perceived as dangerous or taboo – we’ve seen this already with ISPs blocking porn websites and file sharing websites, and industries such as gambling and streaming services have been under threat in the past and will continue to be.
What would losing net neutrality mean?
The internet as we know it would be radically different without net neutrality to protect our online freedom. Without rules in place to protect our right to free access, we would be heavily restricted in what we see and interact with online. Access to the internet would be treated as a luxury service rather than a fundamental right. ISPs would have full control over the information we access – rather than being able to access the information we want to, we’d only be able to access information our ISPs want us to access. This poses a great threat to political activists and other organizations which may go against the interests of an ISP or government.
We’ve seen attempts to block net neutrality from the larger telecomms companies such as AT&T, Verizon and Comcast. It’s in their best interest to restrict traffic to their competitors and boost sales in their products.
This would effectively place the internet in the hands of ISPs rather than the hands of the public, and it’s this perspective which drives many people to protest and express their anger at the attempts to shut down net neutrality.
What is being done to protect net neutrality?
The issue of net neutrality has been widely debated for years. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved many net neutrality rules based on Title II of the Communications Act, giving users strong protection. However ISPs and invested individuals have since begun undoing this, and in the last year or two it has been a case of one step forward, two steps back. The new head of the FCC, Chairman Pai, has begun systematically dismantling the work done to build net neutrality laws. As a former Verizon attorney, many have expressed that his interests clearly lie with the ISPs rather than the public.
In 2017 there has been a huge movement both online and physically, to protect net neutrality and fight back against those wanting to control online use. International protests are commonplace, and are getting more frequent and more popular. News outlets are picking up on the issue and net neutrality is no longer confined to small online communities.
Popular companies are also taking a stand, and websites such as Google and Facebook are making their stance on the issue clear as well as encouraging users to aid in the fight to protect internet freedom.
Should I be worried about this affecting me?
The effects of losing net neutrality may not be immediately obvious but it’s certainly an ongoing issue worth keeping an eye on. In the USA, the issue is much more prevalent – ISPs generally have more of a control there and lobbying directly influences the laws that are enforced. The threat of losing net neutrality is not as imminent as it may be in other countries.
That said, this doesn’t mean that it will never affect internet users in the United Kingdom. If lack of net neutrality becomes the standard in the US, then the UK may well follow suit.