Why you can't afford to be neutral about net neutrality

As a two-tier internet looms in the USA, Craig Grannell asks: what does this mean for the future of the web in the UK?
Internet Map: city-to-city connections © ChrisHarrison.net

Brits often keep the USA at arm’s length, because certain things that happen there are too awful to contemplate, like spray cheese in a can. But precisely because such things happen, we should keep a beady eye out, to stop similar problems making their way across the Atlantic. 

Right now, people are freaking out about net neutrality, or more accurately the fear that the US Federal Communications Commission will soon have a vote that could start the process of taking an axe to net neutrality. This would occur through changes to its rules, shifting them from not allowing ISPs to discriminate regarding traffic, and instead allowing a modicum of prioritisation for commercial reasons. The vote was originally scheduled for May 15, but FCC chairman Tom Wheeler (a former cable industry lobbyist) has now reportedly slammed on the brakes after harsh criticism of the changes.

All data is created equal

Fiber optics

If you’re unclear on net neutrality, it’s essentially equality for the internet: all data is created equal, and therefore all data should be treated equally. Sending an email? Watching the latest video of an amusing and cute kitten being amusing and cute? Working on an extremely important presentation in a worryingly flaky cloud-based office suite? It should all be treated in the same manner by your ISP and served accordingly.

The main argument in favour of net neutrality is therefore that it provides an even playing field for the internet. Without it, ISPs could conceivably create so-called ‘fast lanes’ and charge certain companies and services for access, the costs for which would be passed on to you; or they could cripple competitors by making their services appear to be streaming from 1997 while ensuring their own suffer from no such fate.

Life in the fast lane


Aside from user experiences deteriorating, we’d also find only companies with deep pockets could thrive, newcomers without millions to spend being hampered by being dumped in the slow lane. Additionally, the ‘fast lane’ wouldn’t necessarily exist anyway, given that without investment the road would still be the same as it was before — the difference would simply be anyone not paying the toll having their tyres repeatedly slashed by a maniacally grinning ISP’s CEO.

Or so we’re told. In reality, things aren’t quite so simple. Data isn’t always equal today, hence, for example, ‘traffic shaping’ (which UK regulations allow, as long as an ISP is transparent about what it’s doing). Also, those battling net neutrality argue the rapidly shifting nature of what’s consumed online makes it rational and reasonable to treat certain data differently, in order to ensure connectivity infrastructure can scale and be invested in. And as The Register points out, the way the web works is already an increasingly complex battle for resources, where large companies in some cases essentially create or negotiate their own high-speed networks. Any notion of a truly level playing field thus appears to be an idealist’s fantasy.

The Neutral Zone

FCC letter

But perhaps it’s level enough, and it’s interesting to see 100 technology giants, including Google, Facebook and Amazon, writing to the FCC, warning them to not mess up the internet by wrecking net neutrality and ushering in the potential for “individualised bargaining and discrimination”. They think something’s up, or are at least trying to ensure the FCC doesn’t inadvertently do something stupid. And in a sense, we should be thinking the same.

Arguments surrounding net neutrality are complex, but fundamental ideas about discrimination, transparency and equal access to data are not. MEPs seem broadly in favour of net neutrality, but the UK government has routinely sided with big business and lobbyists rather than the greater good for consumers when it comes to laws surrounding technology. We must watch what’s going on in the USA, keep checks on MPs here and in Europe, try to unpick and make sense of all the facts and opinions, and fight for an internet future based around fairness, transparency and innovation, rather than one that’s hampered by lobbyists and greed. Doing so won’t necessarily be easy, but sitting on the sidelines and being neutral is not an option.

[Image: ChrisHarrison.net]

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