Net neutrality (before 2003, known as “common carrier concept”) describes the idea that internet service providers (ISPs) should route data indiscriminately of its type or origin. For example, a video should have the same priority, no matter if it is served by YouTube or a small competitor.
Net neutrality is an important principle of internet regulation. Despite being regarded as a cornerstone of successful innovation in an open and free internet, net neutrality is under threat from ISPs, large corporations, and governments.
In the U.S., despite millions of pro-net neutrality comments flooding the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) website and despite the near-unanimous outcry from public officials and tech experts, the FCC ignored the will of the overwhelming majority of the public and instead went ahead with dismantling net neutrality on December 14, 2017.
A principle that has governed the internet for most of its existence, net neutrality was created to promote and foster a free and open internet. It’s the principle that all sites and services—no matter how big or small—be treated the same, and late last week the FCC killed it. As of June 11, 2018, net neutrality has officially been repealed, meaning the rules requiring internet service providers to give equal access to web content are no longer in effect.
What will happen now that net neutrality has been reversed?
By moving the internet’s regulatory power from Title II back to Title I, the FCC is now giving internet service providers (ISPs) the ability to throttle, prioritize, block, and radically reshape the internet in any way they see fit. As long as they disclose their business practices, ISPs in the U.S. have free rein to market their services however they want, which means consumers, once again, will be left at the behest of their ISP.
The repeal is likely to affect internet users in other countries, too. As the U.S. is traditionally seen as a pioneer in internet technology, this decision sets a precedent from which other nations are likely to take cues. The U.S. is also the most popular source of content consumed internationally, and the influence ISPs now have over the fates of content creators and distributors like Netflix or Spotify is bad news for the whole world.
Unfortunately, this is only the tip of the iceberg; the long-term ramifications are still too early to tell.
Let’s take a step back and analyze this from the ground up:
What does net neutrality mean?
Every packet of data transferred through the cables and switches of internet providers should be treated the same, regardless of application, user, content, or platform.
In practice, net neutrality means that your ISP is not allowed to scrutinize your internet use and slow down, or throttle, packets based on what service you’re viewing. ISPs would not be allowed to favor companies that they have agreements with—for example, speeding up YouTube while slowing down Vimeo.
It’s because of neutrality that ISPs are often regulated similarly to public utility companies (common carriers), which are not allowed to discriminate in delivering their service. For example, during a power outage or a water shortage, your utility company will likely be prohibited from favoring some households over others.
Why is net neutrality 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 users to adopt internet innovations.
Without net neutrality, an ISP could collude with a video streaming service and deliver that service’s videos 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.
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 (WhatsApp, 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.
Net neutrality rules around the world
Net neutrality rules were adopted in the United States by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 2005. However, the legal basis of the FCC rules remained contentious, and repeated attempts to turn them into law failed in Congress.
In 2017, under a new administration, the FCC decided to repeal its rules. The repeal went into effect in 2018 despite many online protests.
While individual countries may still decide on stronger net neutrality rules, the European Union (EU) has been setting a minimum standard since 2002. This framework is outlined in Article 3 of EU Regulation 2015/2120. This standard still allows telecoms to downgrade their customers’ services under some circumstances.
Some European countries have robust net neutrality laws, such as the Netherlands and Slovenia, but others, like Portugal, allow for discriminating pricing models that by most people’s definitions violate net neutrality rules.
The Brazilian Civil Rights Framework for the Internet (Marco Civil da Internet) of 2014 in principle upholds the idea of net neutrality but has also blocked services like WhatsApp.
China does not have net neutrality laws and regularly censors services and data.
Since 2018, India has strong net neutrality rules that ban any form of data discrimination.
Since 2016, the Federal Antimonopoly Service of Russia (FAS) approved a regulation that inhibited ISPs from blocking websites or services except those made at the request of the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media.
As of 2011, Singapore has had a federally enforced net neutrality law which ensures internet users can’t be discriminated against, or charged extra, for any type of data or service use.
There are currently no net neutrality laws for South Africa with the country’s Internet Service Providers’ Association declaring net neutrality a “non-issue.”
As of Brexit in early 2020, the UK no longer follows Article 3 of EU Regulation 2015/2120. Net neutrality is now regulated under The Office of Communications (Ofcom), who from December 31, 2020, has been obligated to provide a yearly report on UK net neutrality rules.
Is net neutrality the perfect solution?
In theory, yes. But there are many instances when net neutrality is far from ideal. Some data simply has a different priority compared with 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 use would be far more efficient if data were assigned 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 decide, we would end up with monopolistic behavior, and if we let the users, or companies, make the call, we would likely face a situation 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 by attaching 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 it is 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.
How a VPN can help net neutrality
While a VPN can’t protect you from all of the effects of the net neutrality repeal, it can help lessen the sting. For starters, a VPN can help users avoid ISP throttling, which means if your internet service provider decides to slow down a certain service like Hulu while not doing the same for a competitor like Netflix, connecting to a VPN server can help avoid any intentional ISP throttling and allow users to browse and stream normally.
A VPN can also help users unblock restricted sites. A recurring argument against the repeal is the belief that ISPs will now be able to blacklist certain sites—either making them unavailable or only accessible to users who pay a fee. By connecting to a VPN server outside the ISP’s jurisdiction, users can essentially bypass blacklisted sites and browse freely.
A VPN returns control to users by allowing them to browse the web anonymously—while simultaneously taking comfort in a secure, encrypted connection. After all, an ISP can’t discriminate against certain sites or services if it can’t see which ones you’re using.
What a VPN can’t do
Unfortunately, a VPN won’t be able to help users match the speed of prioritized sites or services. For example, if an ISP were to make Hulu content stream faster than Netflix or Amazon Prime Video, connecting a VPN won’t allow the user to bring Netflix and Prime Video up to Hulu’s speeds.
Another area of concern is how ISPs will handle zero-rated sites. When an internet provider decides to promote a website by excluding it from a consumer’s data plan, it’s called a zero-rated site because the data used on that service doesn’t count towards one’s overall data limit. With net neutrality protections repealed, ISPs now have more control over how they handle zero-rated services. Using a VPN could in theory level the playing field by bringing a zero-rated site or service back into one’s standard data plan, but given that there’s little incentive for consumers to do so, zero-rating will still have a negative effect on competition on the internet.
The fight is far from over
It’s estimated nearly 83% of Americans oppose the FCC’s stance, and even though the FCC has voted to end net neutrality, the repeal won’t come into effect for another few months. Therefore, there’s still time to make your voice heard.
Visit https://www.battleforthenet.com/, a campaign led by our friends over at Fight for the Future, and urge Congress to stop the repeal and enshrine net neutrality principles through legislation.