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Net Neutrality – how internet providers control your broadband speeds.

Day 313 / 365 - BBC iPlayer

Image by xJasonRogersx via Flickr

Net neutrality, by definition, is the unbiased access to the internet. This means that internet providers are not supposed to censor the service they provide for their own profit. Here’s an explanation of what it is, why it is important and how it affects your internet usage on a daily basis.

Why is net neutrality so important?

The internet is based on the principle, rightly or wrongly, that the internet entertains a certain level of democracy and does not discriminate against users. If you pay for your internet and download limits, you have the right to use it without the intervention of your internet provider or other interested parties.

However, this does not mean that internet providers cannot manage internet speeds. If one person allocates the majority of their internet usage to reading the news, they will have different speed requirements than someone who is downloading music and streaming movies. But this is based on a service, not money-making, initiative.

Because net neutrality dictates that a provider cannot give priority to certain products for profit – for example, YouTube cannot pay BT to prioritise traffic to YouTube over traffic to iPlayer – users are concerned that compromising this code would lead to manipulation of the fairness of the internet.

Why is it controversial?

Many are concerned that to allow internet providers to profit from staggered internet access would be to allow big business to control our access to information and how we gain access to it.

A not entirely dissimilar argument could be found in the controversy involving product placement in television programming – if a viewer is unaware of product placement, and television becomes less about content and more about profiteering from the highest bidder, the substance and authority of the program is in danger of being compromised.

Barry Diller, the chairman of IAC, which owns internet staples such as Ask.com and YouTube contender Vimeo, has called on the US government to make net neutrality law, telling the Telegraph “We need an unambiguous rule – a law – that nobody will step between the publisher and the consumer, full stop.”

There is also the distinct possibility that the compromise of net neutrality will motivate so-called ‘dirty tricks’ – one provider might increase the speeds to their video services, producing a perfectly streamed play, whilst slowing down the speed to a competitor’s video services, thus demoting its quality.

Why would anyone not want net neutrality?

There is an argument that the democratic nature of the internet is not entirely real – it is in fact a perceived stance that is already being ebbed away.

Some might argue that the fact that the internet is provided by businesses and is not a public service means it is always subject to entrepreneurial business deals.

Others argue that other media entities such as television and radio have been distributed into different levels of prioritisation according to the service you use and a similar future is inevitable for the internet.

Just yesterday in the US, the Federal Communications Commission regulations, which prohibited traffic interference, was repealed – an example of government challenging the self-imposed rules that were previously taken for granted in the ever dynamic medium of the internet that has, up to now, been allowed to carve out its own path.

Meanwhile, here in the UK, BT, Virgin Media have all pledged to release details of how they manipulate their internet speeds – a step some would see as a welcome sign of increased transparency, and others will see as a cynical move to give an air of comradery to neutrality advocates without changing the policies in question.

  • Lauren Pope

    Great post Maya – I found it really interesting to read. I think net neutrality is essential – with the online world becoming increasingly important to how we go about our daily lives I think it’s vital that businesses aren’t allowed to interfere with the speed at which we access websites.

  • Evgeny

    I believe there’s a fair chance that it’ll be much harder for smaller companies and new entrants to compete with giants who can afford to pay for prioritization. The web is a very innovative space and one of the reasons is that it’s got a very low entry barrier. Removing net neutrality will probably hinder innovation.

  • Stephen Jones

    Companies should just provide the access and offer the speeds they advertise without interfering. Customers should just get the service they paid for, Full Stop!

  • Chris C

    I’m not sure Net Neutrality is so important.. i doubt it’d become a problem to the extent that some websites are inaccessible? Wouldnt it just create a new revenue stream for ISPs to invest in network infrastructure, thereby increasing speeds generally available to consumers?

    In any case, ISPs will just respond by providing broadband tariffs with no traffic shaping policy – such as VMs 50mb plan?

    And… lastly, to Evgenys point – restrictions usually spark innovation non?

  • MikeI

    The Web is one of the last bastions of any kind of Democracy in England. Commerciality must (and shall not) be allowed to continue to eat away at our Democracy. Using the net, I can get at any of our ‘elected’ Rulers ant time I want/need to. Long live freedom of the net.

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