Our guide to net neutrality

Web giants including Amazon and Netflix are fighting to save the web from political and corporate interference.

What is it?

Net neutrality is the concept that all online traffic should be treated equally whether it’s an email, a social-media post, a voice call, a shopping purchase or
a YouTube video. It effectively means web access without restriction and discrimination, and it ensures that the internet remains free and open – not only by preventing broadband providers from blocking content but by stopping companies paying more to benefit from faster data delivery. It is currently under threat in the US and some of the biggest names in tech are trying to save it.

Does the UK have net neutrality?

Yes, at the moment. For just over a year, the EU has banned the blocking, throttling and discrimination of online content, applications and services. This means that ISPs are not allowed to restrict or make it difficult to access

a service, and it prevents them from slowing down certain traffic to the detriment of any other. They are also prevented from prioritising, for example, Netflix over BBC iPlayer or My5, which means that one piece of data can’t overtake another piece of data to get to its destination more quickly.

But are there exceptions?

There certainly are. When net neutrality was enshrined in EU law last April, it included several exceptions. For example, ISPs are able to manage traffic if they are legally obliged to, so if a court orders that certain content has to be blocked, then that must be acted on. Internet providers can also interfere with the flow of data if it makes the network more secure or to avoid congestion at specific times. What they can’t do, however, is slow down Spotify, for instance, while allowing Apple Music to continue unaffected, because equivalent categories of traffic – in this case, music streaming – must be treated equally.

Does the US have net neutrality laws, too?

Yes, it does. In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruled in favour of net neutrality, changing the classification of a broadband provider from “information provider” to “common carrier” (which means it carries traffic without discrimination and interference). The new Open Internet rules treat the internet as a public utility and, as in the EU, ISPs are prevented from throttling or blocking content online. But the situation is changing and the FCC is already looking to reverse the rules.

What would scrapping net neutrality achieve?

It would allow network owners to produce ‘slow’ and ‘fast’ lanes on the internet. By paying extra to ISPs, major services such as Google, Facebook and Amazon would be able to move around the internet faster than those services that pay less or nothing at all.

So why doesn’t the FCC want net neutrality?

Republican Ajit Pai, who was named Chairman of the FCC by President Donald Trump, believes enforcing net neutrality has slowed consumer access to faster broadband connections and reduced investment in network expansion. He is backed by US cable companies who want the freedom to grant preferential treatment to selected content.

They say innovation has been stifled and that the amount of money put into broadband has fallen by as much as 3%.

Pai favours “voluntary” compliance with the net-neutrality rules that state there should be no discrimination, blocking or paid prioritisation. This would leave ISPs that don’t want to volunteer for compliance free to cash in on deals with services willing to pay for prioritised traffic. US networks Comcast and Verizon have said they need to charge some companies more to help tackle congested traffic.

What do the supporters of net neutrality say about this?

As you’d expect, they are up in arms, fearing that ISPs will try to interfere in content delivery. A record four million public comments were posted ahead
of the introduction of the Open Internet rules and its backers are not going down without a fight. They want the same speeds for all data and they want all legal content treated equally. Certainly, they are opposed to any moves that would allow ISPs to set up fast lanes that give paying content providers better speeds and prioritisation. They argue that rolling back the Open Internet rules impedes innovation and that ISPs rather than users will end up determining which companies win and lose. It’s rather telling that more than 800 internet-based startups have signed an open letter against the move.

But what are the big tech companies doing about it?

Some of the internet’s largest companies made 12 July their ‘Day of Action’ protest. Those involved included Amazon, Kickstarter, Reddit, GitHub, Etsy, Mozilla, Netflix, BitTorrent and Vimeo together with the American Civil Liberties Union, American Library Association Center for Media Justice, Demand Progress, MoveOn, Greenpeace and Organizing For Action. It’s not surprising to see such opposition given the level of protests against similarly restrictive bills five years ago. Back then, more than 50,000 websites blacked out their homepages for a period of 12 hours.

Will net neutrality win again?

It’s hard to tell because Pai appears determined to see it overturned (we’d rather see an overturned pie). In May, the FCC voted two to one in favour of an order to eliminate net-neutrality rules, but it still has to go through the current period of comment and a final vote in a month or two. A good number of senators are also against the repealing of net-neutrality rules and have signed an open letter published on TechCrunch (bit.ly/techcrunch427). “President Trump’s FCC is threatening to take away your ability to have free and open use of the internet,” they wrote.

Will Brexit affect net neutrality in the UK?

The current plan for Brexit is that the Great Repeal Bill will repatriate EU law into British law when we leave the European Union. But that doesn’t prevent laws from being repealed later. Ofcom

is a member of the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (Berec), which oversees the net-neutrality rules for the EU.

It could decide to set out its own guidelines if it ceases to be a member. However, that would mean companies that operate in both the EU and UK markets would face different rules, which could prove confusing.

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