Net neutrality: a FAQ
What is net neutrality?
Net neutrality (aka the open internet) is the principle that no one internet user should be given preferential treatment over any other internet user. From a finite bandwidth resource, if one user gets more, another user must necessarily get less. Net neutrality holds that this is discrimination that must not be allowed.
The argument against net neutrality
ISPs and telecoms companies claim that the larger companies consume the greater part of the available bandwidth, and should therefore pay more for it. Companies like Netflix and BBC iPlayer account for a high proportion of internet traffic, and should therefore pay more for using the internet than the man in the street who uses the internet for browsing and commenting.
ISPs also claim the right to throttle back user speeds when needed for network management.
This, claim both EC commissioner Neelie Kroes in Europe and FCC chairman Tom Wheeler in the US can be achieved while still calling it net neutrality.
The argument in favour of net neutrality
Supporters of genuine net neutrality claim that if the large, rich companies can buy better internet service, they will do so to the detriment of smaller and start-up companies not able to afford the faster speeds. If everybody were to pay higher prices, then nothing would change. The implication is that supply and demand will force prices to continually increase until some companies can afford a better service than others.
This will lead to an increase in the profits of the ISPs and telecoms suppliers without having to improve the overall service they provide. This will in turn be a disincentive for investing in future broadband improvements. Furthermore, the increased costs to the big companies will be passed on to the users, who will therefore have to pay more for online services. Smaller companies will simply be squeezed out of the internet, unable to afford good broadband service, and unable to compete with the large established companies. This will make the rich richer and the poor poorer.
Current status in Europe
Neelie Kroes tried to redefine net neutrality to allow (according to the European Digital Rights Group) telecommunications providers to monitor users’ internet usage “ranging from visits of websites to the receiving of e-mails;” and even, it adds, legitimize “the slowing down of bit rates or the restriction of access to allegedly illegal services and content.” Not only is this the clear opposite of net neutrality, says EDRI, it would further be a breach of both the Human Rights Declaration and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.
Kroes introduced her version of net neutrality into the Regulation on the Single Telecoms Market; and for a while it looked as if she would get her way. But a combination of the left, liberal, green and pirate elements of the European Parliament put forward their own amendment and shot down her version in early April.
Provided that the European Council (that is, the relevant ministers from the individual member states’ governments) endorse the parliament’s vote in October, net neutrality will be guaranteed in Europe. But it’s not certain yet; and there will be huge industry lobbying between now and October.
Current state in the US
Net neutrality comes under the aegis of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Since 2010 it has enforced net neutrality in the US via its open internet rules. This, however, was challenged by Verizon; and in January of this year a federal appeals court ruled that the FCC did not have the mandate to impose its open internet rules on ISPs. The court confirmed the FCC’s mandate over telecommunications providers and effectively invited the FCC to reclassify ISPs as telecoms providers in order to maintain its open internet rules.
Many commentators expected the FCC to do just that. It has not; and meanwhile it has had a change of leadership. Julius Genachowski, who presided over the open internet, left and was replaced by Tom Wheeler, a former telecommunications company lobbyist and president of the NCTA (the ISP’s trade group). Wheeler has now announced that he intends to allow ISPs to deliver a faster service to those companies that pay more for it.
In Europe we await the vote of the European Council, probably in October. The Council usually abides by the decision of the European Parliament; but this is not a foregone conclusion. If it does, genuine net neutrality will eventually become law in Europe.
In the US, the FCC is expected to vote on Wheeler’s new proposal this coming week (15 May, 2014). There has been a huge backlash. Some of the FCC commissioners are known to be unhappy, and suggested (unsuccessfully) that he delay the vote to allow more consultation. Ten senators wrote to him with their concerns. “The time has come,” they said, “for the FCC to adopt Net Neutrality rules that provide clear, strong protections for the Open Internet and all Americans, once and for all.”
Meanwhile, public protests are growing. One group is picketing the FCC building with a ‘people’s firewall’. A mass protest is being organized. And web hosting firm NeoCities started to throttle access from FCC IP addresses to its home page (putting the relevant source code on Github) and calling for other sites to do the same.