Net neutrality (before 2003, described as common carrier concept) is an important principle of internet regulation. Despite being regarded as a cornerstone of successful innovation in an open and free internet, the principle of net neutrality is under threat from Internet Service Providers (ISPs), large corporations, and governments.
What does net neutrality mean?
Net neutrality means that every packet of data transferred through the cables and switches of internet providers is treated the same, regardless of application, user, content or platform.
In practice, net neutrality means that your ISP is not allowed to detect your BitTorrent or Skype use and slow down, or throttle, these packets.
ISPs would not be allowed to favor companies that they have agreements with and, for example, speed up Youtube while slowing down Vimeo.
For reasons of neutrality, ISPs are often regulated similarly to public utility companies (common carriers), which are not allowed to discriminate their service. During a power outage or a water shortage, your utility company will likely be prohibited from favoring some households over others.
Why net neutrality is so important
The idea of net neutrality is seen as the most important principle to guarantee healthy competition between internet companies and make it easy for innovations to be adopted by users.
Without net neutrality, an ISP could collude with a video streaming service and deliver videos of their service with high speed and quality while limiting all other services to slow speeds and poor quality.
The high-speed video streaming service would then be able to raise prices, share the profits with the ISP and never have to worry about competition again.
Who is threatening net neutrality and why?
Internet conglomerates and ISPs threaten net neutrality. The two groups dislike the competition of a free and open market and would prefer to create a monopolistic environment where they can overcharge for inferior products—similar to how cable companies did (and still do!) before the internet.
Some examples of net neutrality breaches in the past:
- Throttling of BitTorrent traffic
- Offering free data, but only for a particular company (like Facebook or Spotify)
- Disabling of Apple Facetime
- Blocking of free internet calling services
Some large internet companies also stand accused of dismantling the principle of net neutrality. Facebook’s internet.org campaign aims to deliver free internet access to the developing world, but at the same time, it will restrict access to certain platforms and heavily favor companies owned by Facebook, including Whatsapp and Instagram.
The fear is that without the principle of net neutrality, nobody will be able to create an “internet startup” anymore because ISPs will favor the traffic of the major incumbent monopolies and no startup will be able to pay the ISP enough to offer adequate service.
Is net neutrality the perfect solution?
In theory, yes. But there are many instances when net neutrality is far from perfect. Some data simply has a different priority compared to other data. It seems absurd to route a computer backup at the same priority as a phone call, for instance, and the world’s bandwidth would be far more efficient if data used an express and low priority.
Sadly, we have no mechanism to assess the priority of data accurately. If we were to allow Internet Service Providers to determine priority, we would end up with monopolistic behavior, and if we allowed the users or companies to decide on the priority, we would likely face a dilemma in which everybody would flag their data as high priority.
How we could keep net neutrality
With the rise of cryptocurrencies, it might one day be possible to pay for bandwidth, not on a month-by-month or GB-by-GB basis, but rather attach a price to each requested packet based on priority.
The ISP would collect this fee as a reward, and be incentivized to deliver some data first. Of course, this might mean that a GB of online video conference footage would cost far more than a GB of backing up data, or a GB of BitTorrent, but is it a more efficient use of bandwidth.
As long as the user—not the internet service—pays for the data, ISPs and conglomerates would have little opportunity to collude. Streaming a movie in high speed from the biggest provider would cost just as much as streaming it from the smallest provider.
What you can do to save net neutrality
If you suspect that your ISP is throttling your bandwidth selectively or blocking certain services, you can use a VPN to get around it. Your ISP will not be able to look inside your encrypted VPN tunnel and will not be able to slow services down while prioritizing others.
To protect net neutrality, you can also contact your local regulator or Parliament to let them know that this is something you find important.
Let us know your thoughts on net neutrality in the comments below.