What Is Net Neutrality and Why Does It Matter?
Updated · Jun 03, 2022
Welcome, friends, to the internet!
What a wonderful place, isn’t it? Full of funny memes, countless instant messages, worthy shows, amazing online games, and much more.
And how do we access this magical place of happiness? Simply by paying a monthly fee to our internet provider.
At least this is how it works when we have net neutrality.
What is net neutrality, you ask? I’ll explain:
The internet is like buying a ticket to enter Disney World. It’s simple - you pay at the door and then you can go on all the rides you want a-a-all day, woohoo! No one will stop you!
What if they restricted your access to certain rides instead while asking you to ride on the ones they like? Or, maybe they’ll just sabotage the rides they don’t like and then you’d have to give up on them regardless.
Definitely not cool - it’s straight up manipulative.
This is what the online world would look like without net neutrality.
If you are still unsure what I’m talking about, let’s go into more detail.
What Is Net Neutrality?
Here is net neutrality explained:
Network neutrality, or net neutrality for short, is the idea that internet service providers (ISPs) must treat all content equally. They shouldn’t discriminate or charge differently based on user, website, platform, etc.
In other words, according to the definition of net neutrality, ISPs shouldn’t be allowed to block, slow down or charge money for specific online content.
Without network neutrality, ISPs would be allowed to forward some data to the “fast lanes” while leaving other material at a disadvantage.
For example, imagine you’re trying to get to a specific website, say, Netflix. If your internet provider favors Amazon, it can slow down Netflix and force you to switch to Bezos’s behemoth.
So now that you know the net neutrality definition, let’s see what different countries and states are saying regarding net neutrality in 2019:
- Portugal is one of the few countries in Europe without a net neutrality policy and has breached EU net neutrality rules.
- India has adopted strong net neutrality norms and is a firm supporter of this concept.
- Canada has upheld net neutrality protections so far, but they are often under attack.
- In 2018, Oregon prohibited public bodies from contracting with broadband ISPs that are involved in discrimination.
- In general, in the USA net neutrality laws are constantly changing.
Granted, net neutrality is a burning topic all around the world, but in this article, we will focus on the US.
Let’s begin with a brief timeline to help clear things up.
Net Neutrality History Timeline
- 1980 - the internet opens for public use.
- The early 2000s - internet providers ban customers from using VPNs or even setting their own Wi-Fi routers and inspired the net neutrality movement.
- 2005 - the FCC fines North Carolina service provider Madison River and ordered it to stop blocking phone calls over the internet - this was one of the first efforts to enforce net neutrality rules.
- 2008 - the FCC tells Comcast to stop throttling BitTorrent connections on its network. Comcast denied throttling and successfully sued the FCC, winning the argument that Comcast could slow down connections if it wanted to.
- 2009 - Apple is blocking iPhone users from making Skype calls at the request of AT&T. The companies relented under pressure from the FCC.
- 2010 - the FCC approves the Open Internet Order, preventing internet providers from blocking or throttling internet access.
- 2015 - under Obama the FCC passes its Net Neutrality Order, preventing the blocking or prioritizing of any internet traffic. The classifications of ISPs changed and they were now subjected to government regulation.
- 2016 - the FCC adopts the Internet Consumer Privacy Order, ensuring users have control over how their ISP handles their information.
- 2017 - under Trump and chairman Ajit Pai, the FCC votes to abandon its previous orders, enabling providers to block or throttle content as they see fit.
- 2018 - Senator Angus King introduces the Save the Internet Bill in an effort to restore and save net neutrality.
Meanwhile, let’s see how all of that affects YOU.
How The Way You Access the Internet Can Be Controlled
Here are some discriminating ways in which your access to the internet can be controlled:
Discrimination by Communication Protocols
First, what are communication protocols?
Communication protocols are crucial in telecommunications and messaging in or between computing systems. HTTP is one popular example and filtering it is not all that difficult. Filtering means to monitor and vet the transferred data based on its content, origin, or both.
Good. So what is discrimination by protocol then?
Discrimination by protocol means blocking or allowing certain types of traffic based solely on the type of protocol it uses. For example, internet providers might ban high-speed internet users from using popular file-sharing protocols such as BitTorrent.
Discrimination by Data Type
Internet service providers might decide to encourage the use of specific services through their own private networks to discriminate on which data type is counted against bandwidth caps.
ISPs prioritizing certain types of data impacts you as a user because if you exceed a data cap limit, you'd have to pay additional fees. And no one likes paying more and having limited options, right?!
For example, some internet providers might support Facebook, making it load faster than another similar platform and also taking less out of your data limit. That way, you’re given the incentive to choose Facebook over its competitors. A similar example is making Amazon load more slowly than Netflix, or vice versa.
Of course, making a deal with a specific company might benefit financially your internet provider, but you will have to pay more or change your habits. On top of that, you’ll know you’re being manipulated. This would be the unfair world you’ll have to live in.
Discrimination by IP Addresses
This means filtering data using deep packet inspection (DPI). It was first used to defend against harmful malware; now it is used for internet censorship. This is real-time discrimination between different types of data and is often used for services like Google Mail, Facebook, and Twitter.
It is no secret the Chinese government employs this tactic to monitor and censor content and sites harmful to their interests. This includes pornography, religious information, political material, and even popular websites such as Wikipedia, Google, and social media.
In fact, such discrimination is helpful for governments during times of elections because of the control they have over the flow of information.
To sum up, the most common types of discrimination are:
- Blocking - such as China blocking Google and Facebook
- Throttling - when internet providers intentionally slow down an internet service
- Paid prioritization - when big sites like Facebook pay to be prioritized
But that’s not all. Here are a few more things that can happen without net neutrality:
Traffic shaping is regulating network data transfer, which involves delaying the flow of data packets that have been labeled as less important.
If an ISP wants to reduce costs and have the capacity to add more subscribers, it may limit bandwidth consumption for certain applications. This can subsequently limit a customer’s “unlimited connection” and is often done without notice.
Obfuscation of Internet Transparency
Traffic obfuscation is something the users do to mask their real activity online. VPNs like PerfectPrivacy are the most common usage that comes to mind, but TOR also hides your online signature rather well.
If your ISP decides to use its power for “evil” and starts charging for certain services, it might push more users to obfuscate their actions online.
If they charge you more for gaming, you could make it look like you are just browsing and pay less… that is if they don’t catch you.
Intelligent networks are called smart pipes. A smart pipe refers to an operator’s network which uses existing or unique service abilities to provide value beyond just data connectivity and speed.
This sounds good but also gives more control to the internet company, for example, which could lead to differences in services instead of having one deal for all users.
So, now let’s turn to the opposite corner.
What Happens When There Is Net Neutrality
Alright, we talked a bit about the bad things that can happen if net neutrality goes away. Let’s see what the internet looks like now, while it is still in place.
Common Carrier Regulations
In 2015, using Title II, in order to enforce net neutrality, the FCC classified internet service providers as common carriers. The purpose of common carrier law is to make sure the business being paid to transport something, in this case data, does not discriminate against anyone or anything.
However, in 2017, under the new presidency, this order was overturned.
The Open Internet (OI) is a major internet neutrality concept in which information is free and available without any discrimination and not depending on the financial motives of internet providers.
Moreover, the open internet supports net neutrality because it is against internet censorship and for freedom of speech.
A “dumb network” made of “dumb pipes” is a network with little or no control or management. This means it provides equal service to all users without prioritizing content. In theory, it is completely neutral, so this is why it is a crucial part of net neutrality.
Device neutrality is the idea that there is equal access to applications.
This was first proposed in Italy in 2014. According to the proposed bill, users should be free to access content and use the applications they wish, as long as they:
- Are legal
- Do not impair safety and security
- Are not in violation of other laws
In short, device neutrality law states users have the right to non-discrimination of services and apps they use based on platform control by hardware companies.
While Android supports the installation of third-party software from outside the Google Play store, Apple is against it.
Device neutrality goes hand in hand with net neutrality because it supports equal and free access without any discrimination.
Putting Customers First
This is an initiative that every customer needs.
It is simple - putting customers first means exactly what it sounds like. It’s when a business puts the needs of a customer before its own gain (to a reasonable extent).
The goal is to have a healthy relationship with all consumers by identifying their needs. (Remember the buyer persona strategy?) That’s how you provide them with the best possible personalized experience.
When they get a quality personalized experience, it’s a win-win - happy clients give good reviews, which in turn leads to higher sales.
So isn’t it logical to support device neutrality and net neutrality if you want your clients to love you? You know the saying - if you want someone to come back, set them free… Right?
Nobody wants to feel restricted and monitored by their service providers. It sucks having no say in what apps you use or having to pay more to access certain sites or to play games. That’s not how a business needs to treat its customers. (If it wants to keep them, at least.)
Right. Now that you know what it is, let’s explain further why net neutrality is important.
Why Net Neutrality Is Important in General
Net neutrality means that everyone is equal.
It doesn’t matter how much money a company has and how big it is, this doesn’t give it an unfair advantage. No “fast lanes” online; all sites load with more or less the same speed.
No blocked content.
This means the net neutrality law can help global innovation. It allows small companies to have a fair chance at growing and even defeating larger competitors. This is how everyone will strive to be better.
Without net neutrality, the new guy never stands a chance. They’ll be ruthlessly crushed like a cockroach under the boot of giants like Apple and Google every time they try to climb the ladder. With net neutrality in place, as long as they know they can start from the bottom and reach the top, they will work hard like never-tiring ants to one day rise and be the champions.
I mean, this is what healthy competition looks like. It might be a never-ending race, but it is important to know it’s not about how much money you have, it’s about the genius of your ideas and the effort you are putting in. You have to be smart, dedicated, inventive. But you also need to have a fair chance.
This is not to say that big and popular firms are the villain and have to be defeated at all costs. No, the point is, net neutrality ensures that everyone has a chance, no matter how big or small, and that hard work is the way to go. This will inspire and encourage people to always seek new ways to improve and get ahead of the competition.
Customers can only benefit from that as they receive better services for the same price, but it goes beyond that. The whole world will benefit because innovation and the urge to grow is the way to go for humanity as a whole.
Otherwise, without net neutrality, small companies will see no point in trying even if they have good ideas (but limited financial resources). The big companies will, in turn, remain idle, knowing that customers don’t have any better options.
Just imagine what great ideas, developments, and creations we would miss!
On the other hand, some say net neutrality is actually bad for competition. In fact, everything has positive and negative sides, and finding a balance is key.
So let’s see the more specific everyday benefits of net neutrality.
Why Net Neutrality Is Important for Small Businesses
If you are a small-business owner, the current state of events is optimal for you.
What happens when net neutrality is gone?
ISPs would be able to throttle web traffic to startups or ISP competitors. Thus, more dominant, established and larger-scale companies would get priority speed. As we know, site speed is of crucial importance in Google’s search ranking. It also affects conversion rates and overall customer satisfaction.
Similarly, speed is of the utmost importance to video marketing companies who want to limit interruptions and buffering. While larger enterprises might not have a problem with additional costs, the budgets of startups and smaller companies are likely to take a hit.
Why Net Neutrality Is Important For Individual Citizens
So, how do we, as individuals, benefit from net neutrality?
Net neutrality ensures that everyone has freedom of speech and expression. This has to do with open communication protocols that let users innovate without having to ask permission from any company or government.
With net neutrality, your internet provider doesn’t have the right to shape and censor what you access or who has access to you. You have the freedom to choose what services to use and enjoy equal quality of service everywhere. (As far as the actual provider of the service allows for that.)
Moreover, the internet is classified as a public utility, meaning it’s a necessity and not a luxury. It is considered essential, and everyone is entitled to it. If it becomes a luxury, prices can skyrocket.
Not only that but without net neutrality, there will be different application packages and separate charges for each service you want to use. That is already the situation in Portugal, and this is what will happen if net neutrality is repealed.
So these are some of the fundamental arguments made by net neutrality supporters.
Now let’s see what the opposition has to say.
Why ISPs and Corporate Businesses Are Against Net Neutrality
You wonder why net neutrality is bad for corporate businesses?
Here’s the deal:
Without net neutrality, corporations such as Comcast, Charter, AT&T, and Verizon will be able to choose which businesses succeed online, while consumers won’t have any say in the matter.
These ISPs will be able to force companies to pay for speed, shape internet access, and block websites. As you can imagine, big companies will have no problem paying and thus eliminating competition.
Furthermore, ISPs will profit from the absence of net neutrality by forcing customers to pay more as well. It’s in their financial interest to be against net neutrality.
Guess what: they are.
You can read more about their immoral but highly profitable view on the matter here.
Impact of Net Neutrality on Governments
According to some, net neutrality equals having governments in control of the internet and internet prices. Some theorize that the internet as a public utility will not innovate, and businesses will not seek to better their service for consumers.
Another argument in favor of net neutrality is the concern for consumer and privacy protection. After all, it’s no secret that governments like storing files with information about everyone.
Moreover, they will be able to control what you see, what you listen to, what you think. Think a modern version of 1984 by George Orwell, basically. Big Brother and the Thought Police are always watching you, and some claim absolving net neutrality to be a permanent solution.
This is what is bad about net neutrality, according to opponents.
What Some Famous Fellows Have to Say on the Topic
Sir Tim Berner Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, is of the opinion that “neutral networks are critical to ensuring fair, open competition in the content market and driving America’s growth in the digital era.”
Surely our hero, the inventor of All Holy and Glorious, the Heaven of Memes, DMs, and Cat Videos, et cetera, et cetera, is the person we should listen to? He is the Father of the Internet, and while children inevitably grow up and follow their own path, he still has a saying in shaping their character.
In other words, Sir Lee’s intentions have been for the WWW to be open and free for all, and it shouldn’t suffer because of the latest iteration of a long string of power struggles.
You can read his full opinion here.
The other main figure in the debate is Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School, who coined the term “network neutrality” in 2002. He has said he cannot see a reasonable justification for upending net neutrality rules that have been working very well so far.
He claims the concept of net neutrality is often poorly understood, and it is obvious that “a total ban on network discrimination would be counterproductive.” In other words, he does, indeed, support net neutrality but realizes there should still be some rules and regulations. It is important to realize it is not as simple as taking an extreme for or against view.
What Is the Status of Net Neutrality Right Now?
The Senate is voting on the latest bill.
Meanwhile, the people of California and other states have taken matters in their own hands and they’re reinstating protections. You can read more details here and see the net neutrality latest news updates.
To sum up, net neutrality is associated with an open internet, equality, freedom of speech and access, healthy competition, and no discrimination.
However, naturally, there are counterarguments as well.
The truth is, blindly supporting one side is never good. In order to make the best decision, it is key to have open discussions and consider all sides and issues. As usual, striking the perfect balance is not easy (and likely not possible), but there is always a way when there is a will.
Let’s not be stubborn and selfish and let’s not break the internet like Wreck-It Ralph.
Next time someone asks “What is net neutrality?” you’ll be able to impress them with a valid, structured point and spread the knowledge. No need to read “Net Neutrality for Dummies” now!
Wondering what’s next for net neutrality? It has yet a long way to go.
While governments and other big players battle for power, you still can express your will - go vote, sign a petition, protest! Whichever side you’re on, just remember you have the ability (and the right!) to change the direction things are going.
Farewell, fellow net users, and may our favorite space, the Web, stays always open and welcoming!
Teddy is a graduate of the University of Glasgow with MA French and German. A total bookworm and a curious cat, she loves writing, traveling, taking photos, and learning new things. Her interests include languages, literature, technology, cinema, sports (especially volleyball and table tennis), and board games. ~Geeking instensifies~
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