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Net Neutrality: What Is It and What is Everyone Saying About It?


Net neutrality written on a wooden surface. Neutral internet concept.

What is Net Neutrality?

Put simply, net neutrality refers to an unbiased, unaffected, and equal internet. In a neutral net, no company or other figure can manipulate the way an internet connection performs based on any bias. Take a look at some of these different definitions:

“Net neutrality is the principle that individuals should be free to access all content and applications equally, regardless of the source, without Internet Service Providers discriminating against specific online services or websites,” Public Knowledge.

“The principle that Internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favouring or blocking particular products or websites,” Oxford English Dictionary.

“The idea, principle, or requirement that Internet service providers should or must treat all Internet data as the same regardless of its kind, source, or destination,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

“Net neutrality is the idea that your pipe to the internet, whether that is your cable internet connection, your LTE wireless internet connection – however you’re receiving information via the internet – that pipeline is not allowed to arbitrarily pick favorites in terms of the content you consume,” Tay Zonday, YouTuber (video link).

The History of Net Neutrality

An internet law book next to a judge's gavel

What is the history of net neutrality?

The idea of net neutrality has always been connected with the internet, but the term didn’t come about until 2003. Law professor Tim Wu was the first to introduce the terminology. In his paper “Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination” (download the PDF here), Professor Wu argued that “A different type of regime – an anti-discrimination system – is generally preferable, and may serve as a better long-term model for ensuring the public’s interest in internet competition and innovation”. He coined the term “network neutrality”, which was eventually shortened to the simpler “net neutrality”.

The introduction of net neutrality as a tangible concept led to a very long and very heated debate over whether internet service providers (ISPS) should be regulated by the government, required to share their infrastructure, and held to a certain standard. Under Title I of the Communications Act of 1934 (download the PDF here) the internet was considered an information service rather than a telecommunications service. This meant that ISPs were not required to share their network with competitors. This was the case until 2014 when President Barack Obama advocated with the FCC to change the net to sit under Title II of the Communications Act. Under Title II the internet is considered a utility, and thus is regulated by the government.

For us net consumers, this means that we cannot be charged more or less depending on what we use our internet service for. This has been compared to an electric company being prohibited from dimming all lightbulbs except those from companies that are paying premiums to that electric company to have the brightest – and thus most desirable – bulbs.

In 2017 net neutrality was been brought back into debate. Many believe that the utility-like ruling of the net should be repealed, while many others believe it should remain as it is currently.

Arguments Against Net Neutrality

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Why is net neutrality a bad thing?

Those who are against net neutrality believe that it is a contradiction in and of itself. Since net neutrality calls for an unaffected internet, detractors believe that involving regulation inherently negates anything unbiased about it. Basically, the argument is to a lot of people a seemingly contradictory one: “let’s give the government regulatory control of the internet, so that the internet will be free and open.”

A very prominent argument against net neutrality is that it stifles competition. So while supporters believe that Bing paying more to get faster connection is wrong, detractors insist that this will only encourage Google and Yahoo to work harder to earn that faster connection. Thus, consumers will benefit by getting quality internet content from these companies.

On top of the belief that regulations cannot breed open access and the absence of them breeds competition, many against net neutrality believe the concept was born out of fear and denomination of big companies – not out of a concrete problem. Basically, as Chariman of the FCC Ajit Pai said in 2015, net neutrality is “A solution that won’t work to a problem that doesn’t exist”.

Arguments For Net Neutrality

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Why is net neutrality a good thing?

Those who support net neutrality are concerned that should it be abolished, because ISPs will use their biases to prevent certain websites from loading properly. Supporters are also concerned about ISPs charging content providers premiums, much like the above example regarding the electric company. YouTuber Tay Zonday gives the following potential instance of how these premiums might manifest in a video on net neutrality:

“If you like to use Google search and your roommate likes to use Bing Search, your internet service provider can’t say ‘Well, Bing is paying us a lot of money so we’re going to slow down Google and Yahoo and their other search engine competitors to make Bing load fastest.’”

Supporters also explain that net neutrality ensures that the internet will stay an open and free space for all users, regardless of what content they choose to consume and from where. Before broadband was regulated by the FCC there were instances of ISPs hindering websites from full connectivity based on claims that said sites used up a majority of the provider’s bandwidth. The argument was that because websites for things video sharing one consumed so much of the providers’ network that those sites should have to pay more than other websites to earn efficient connections.

In 2007 Comcast was found blocking peer-to-peer sharing sites, allegedly biased by the fact that they were planning to launch a similar service (Comcast now co-owns Hulu). Similarly, Verizon Wireless has been found blocking messaging campaigns put forth by political groups that the company has found to be controversial. Another ISP that has been proven to use political bias to block certain content is AT&T. The provider was streaming an exclusive Pearl Jam concert when the lead singer sang seemingly controversial lyrics about a politician. AT&T muted the sound of the stream during these improvised lyrics, citing excessive profanity (although many claimed that the political commentary did not contain any profanity).

Conclusion

Net neutrality has been discussed for almost as long as the internet has been around, and it’s likely that this won’t stop anytime soon. There are arguments that can be posed for either side of the debate, but hopefully you know more about the issue now than you did before reading this article, which has offered some insights into the arguments for and against it. So, what do you think about net neutrality? Let us know on our facebook page.