What is Net Neutrality and why is it under threat?

Net Neutrality is at the very heart of what makes the internet the internet. It means that when you access a website, regardless of its content (so long as it is legal) or who provides the content, it will be treated in the same way as every single other website by your Internet Service Provider.

This is the spirit of the Internet, but in the US neutrality is under threat. There is opposition to it (particularly from Ajit Pai the chairman of the FCC,( Federal Communications Commission), and former lawyer for Verizon, one of the largest ISPs in the country) The basis of the opposition is that in 2002 the US Government announced that internet service providers would not be regulated meaning they could offer whatever services they wanted, this was rolled back in 2010 under Obama with the Open Internet Act which amongst other things said that legal content could not be blocked, and that all sites and traffic had to be treated the equally.

Despite opposition from ISPs these rules were upheld throughout the Obama years but the new Republican led US administration sees government regulation as fundamentally a bad thing so despite almost universal opposition the FCC has rolled back these rules.

Who Supports the rollback?

Pretty much nobody apart from some members of the FCC and most of the internet service providers. Almost without exception the major tech companies are against repealing net neutrality as it could in theory restrict access to their services, and when plans to end neutrality were released the website of the FCC crashed due to the volume of people leaving comments in opposition against it.

The elimination of net neutrality is not a sure thing yet though, despite the move being pushed through the FCC there is a lot of opposition to it within the US Senate, and a number of US states are developing their own laws to make sure internet traffic is treated equally. Significantly there are going to be legal challenges to any changes from some of the biggest companies in the world, think Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft amongst others all of who have more than enough money to conduct a long fight in court.

Should the rollback of Net Neutrality be allowed it could fundamentally change the way the internet works. Assume for a moment a company provides your home internet, lets call them MegaCorp. Lets also assume MegaCorp also has its own video streaming service and is a major shareholder in a particular social network. Should neutrality be repealed then a number of things could potentially happen, access to rival streaming services and social networks could be blocked, access to them could be slowed down meaning buffering, lots of buffering, or you could be made to pay an additional fee in your monthly broadband bill for access to rival sites. This mean that rather than a single internet there could be a number of walled gardens out there each controlled by a particular internet service provider.

Issues surrounding Net Neutrality are not restricted to the United States. Even Facebook who oppose the rollback of Net Neutrality in the US came under fire with their Free Basics initiative which launched in countries around the globe, this was a scheme designed to give people in deprived countries access to internet services free of charge. But because people were only given access to sites sanctioned by Facebook (Bing search engine, no Google for instance) it was seen to be violating the spirit of Net Neutrality.

I’m in the UK, should I be worried?

Because of various European and UK laws a potential restricted internet is not really a prospect in at the moment. But the fact that there are a number of companies in the UK that provide both TV and Internet services means it could become something to worry about in the future, especially once thUK leaves the European Union as at the moment many of our neutrality rules are enshrined in the EU’s Regulation on Open Internet Access. But as the vast majority of EU regulations are going to be transferred into UK law it would appear for now there is nothing to be concerned about, at least for now.