Net Neutrality discusses the openness of the internet; the fact that all internet access should be equal, neutral irrespective of service. All data should be equally accessible across users, speeds remain unregulated and throttled, and among other things, all services be equally accessible across and within networks. This, however, is not the case in several countries across the world. Service providers intend to, and in many cases, have effectively divided the internet into ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ lanes: structuring customers’ speeds and access in line with the amount they pay ISPs.
In the United States of America, Comcast has been in the news for its repeated violations of the principles of Net Neutrality. The USA’s Federal Communications Commission’s Open Internet Order promoted and sought to enforce the principles and ideals of net neutrality on Internet Service Providers, who could not be permitted to charge selectively for services and provide selected access.
Comcast, which is looking to acquire cable content provider Time-Warner, could potentially become both content creator and provider. It charges content provider Netflix high fees in order for consumers to access the service via Comcast’s network at speeds acceptable to consumers.
It is hoping (as of January 2015) to convince the FCC to create a net neutrality exemption allowing it to still charge Netflix.
FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said earlier this month that he will move to protect Net Neutrality by reclassifying Internet-access service under Title II of the Communications Act. This would mean it would mean internet service would be classified as “telecommunications service,” subject to tighter regulation, a change from its earlier status as a lightly regulated “information service.”, a necessity to promote the open, fair architecture of the internet and ensure it is not compromised.
The absence of net neutrality has serious ramifications; these may be economic, they may be technological, they may be related to personal freedoms.
Should a firm like Comcast, [which also owns NBC and is acquiring Time Warner] gain an absolute monopoly from its current existence as part of an oligopoly, it spells several problems.
First, this would make a firm that is content provider, creator and distributor at the helm of being able to grant selective access to this content to its consumers, at any price it saw fit. Other content providers [such as Netflix] are already being charged in order for their services to be provided to a certain standard, while content provided by firms under Comcast’s wing are available at this standard at no cost, ultimately only benefitting the firm and shutting out external activity.
Providing unequal, discriminatory access to the internet can ultimately reduce participation on the web, leading to a form of stifling; those who cannot pay for better access to the internet must simply be content with not having their voices heard as loudly; several studies have shown dwindling internet use at lower speeds.
In addition, ISPs may then subsequently choose to completely block certain services at their own discretion, leaving consumers few to no options, especially in places where certain providers are the only way for consumers to access the internet, which is no longer a luxury, but a utility in this technological day and age. Several ISPs have, in the past, intentionally slowed down peering or P2P communication and sharing.
This violates the very foundations of the internet as a structure that permits equal access, free speech and the uninhibited sharing of information. If unchecked, all of the above could become an even more stark reality sooner rather than later, and this is why the fight for net neutrality is all-important.
Writer and communications professional by day, musician by night, Anuradha Santhanam is a former social scientist at the LSE. Her writing focuses on human rights, socioeconomics, technology, innovation and space, world politics and culture. A programmer herself, Anuradha has spent the past year studying and researching, among other things, data and technological governance. An amateur astronomer, she is also passionate about motorsport.
More of her writing is available here and she can be found on Twitter at @anumccartney.
(Image credit: Joseph Gruber, via Flickr)