What is net neutrality and how does it affect you?

Net neutrality

If you frequently read technology sites, you have no doubt come across articles referencing or talking about net neutrality (the “net” in this term can mean either network or Internet). Personally I have seen more and more articles about net neutrality and its accompanying debates pop up in recent months.

For many of us, the words “net neutrality” don’t exactly lure us to read more so we usually just go on to read about the latest iPhone release or something similarly exciting. But are we right not to take an interest in net neutrality? Or is it something that needs to become a point of discussion because of its effect on our lives?

I will admit that I was not one of those eagerly reading articles on net neutrality (until now). As a matter of fact, my idea of its definition was very vague. Let’s provide a concise definition, for those who want to take an interest in this topic. Net neutrality is basically an environment that creates equality for all on the Internet. It is a sort of modern-day civil rights movement. In this instance, however, it is not a specific group against another specific group but all members of society who use technology against the big corporations and governments that aim to throttle freedom of Internet usage.

Net neutrality is a component of the Open Internet. The Open Internet is a concept encompassing open web standards and the equal treatment of data to allow free communication and the conduct of business without third party interference. Net neutrality means that Internet service providers do not discriminate or charge differently based on the user, content, site, platform or application.

In a nutshell, without net neutrality you as an Internet user may be given restricted access to the internet and services you receive may be artificially degraded without your knowledge. Also, the content you do access will be filtered based on what corporations and governments do and don’t want you to see. Basically, corporations and governments will be in control of your choices and this will limit your freedom of choice on the Internet.

It all seems extremely ominous when one sees it written down like that, as there will be some kind of puppet master pulling strings to restrict you. Unfortunately it is something that certain parts of the world are already experiencing (such as China and North Korea). However, if you currently live in a country where the Internet is unrestricted, you could realistically become the target of restrictive access.

The issue of net neutrality affects everyone who uses the Internet. If you are reading this, you count as an Internet user. Every day you can either type in a URL or a query on a search engine, press Enter and, voila, you can read and browse any site you want to your heart’s content. But what if you couldn’t do that anymore? What if your access was restricted according to someone else’s idea of what you need and not your own? These are only two reasons why you should take note of net neutrality.

I’m not going to delve into what Americans are currently seeing occur in their country with the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) being ridiculed and taken head-on by tech giants like Google, Amazon and Netflix over the regulations they plan to implement. In January 2014, the net neutrality rules were overturned and now Internet service providers (in the USA at least) are free to block and interfere with Internet traffic. Seeing as the USA often leads the way when it comes to laws and setting standards for the rest of the world, net neutrality has become a hot topic and it can affect you no matter where you live.

There are three ways in which you can ultimately be affected when big corporations and fat cats take control of the Web. Firstly, the Internet was designed to be an open medium and every site or contributor to the Web is supposed to be treated equally. This means small sites or blogs can compete with corporate websites on a level playing field and win. The Internet is supposed to give you the results closest to what you search for and not according to who is paying the most to be recognized. If there is no more net neutrality, small sites and blogs have no chance of competing with big corporations.

The first point leads into the next, where innovation and drive is no longer going to be enough – only big money will be important. Startups, entrepreneurs, bloggers and so forth will no longer be able to grow with very little to no money at their disposal. The big corporations will pay to be at the top of the Web hierarchy, leaving no room for small companies and sites to work their way up. If there is no net neutrality, big corporations will simply pay to have only their content and those of their partners displayed.

Lastly, net neutrality is important to prevent what is called double-dipping. Usually network owners charge service providers (who provide consumers with Internet access) a set rate to acquire Internet access. However, with double-dipping, these network owners will charge for access to the network AND for all of the things that will be done on the network. The network owners will charge the service providers these extra costs and ultimately that cost will be passed on to you, the user. This can lead to higher costs for doing simple things on the Internet we used to take for granted as well as restrictions on what you can do. Ultimately the ISPs will have less control over what they can provide the user and you will have less access if you don’t have the money to pay for it.

There are currently many sites and communities cropping up that aim to raise awareness about net neutrality being in danger and what it means for you as a user. Demonstrations have been held in the USA where protestors proclaim the right of users to have a free and open Internet. The people fighting for the Internet to remain open and free are reaching out to their local Members of Congress, writing petitions and calling the FCC on a regular basis. One prominent site leading the fight against the loss of net neutrality is http://www.savetheinternet.com/sti-home.

FCC net neutrality protestor

For the rest of the world there is perhaps only one thing we can do and that is wait. The threat of losing net neutrality is slowly becoming a reality. For now, we need to thank our lucky stars that we can still freely access our favourite sites (even though users in most countries are, to some degree, already under surveillance whether they know it or not) and express our opinions without hindrance. It is a privilege and something that we all take for granted. Always be informed about what is going on in the news even if you might see it as boring or not pertaining to your life.