Net neutrality is the concept that internet users will have access to content on the internet without restrictions from governments and internet service providers (ISPs.) Also, broadband providers can have no input outside of current legislation as to what content will reach the consumer by throttling bandwidth to certain sites.
There are concerns that ISPs and other broadband providers presently have the potential, by virtue of their ability to connect users to the internet, to govern how content gets delivered to users and that this potential to govern access needs to be regulated. For instance, amongst other options, they can charge different fees for different download speeds.
The possible imposition of net neutrality legislation in attempt to regulate this sort of activity has sparked opposition from those who wish to preserve the open nature of the internet.
The future of net neutrality in the U.S. is still in doubt as internet provider Verizon has filed an appeal challenging the Federal Communication Commission’s (F.C.C.) rules on the issue, which were introduced on December 21 last.
The FCC’s rules are designed to prevent ISPs from blocking, or charging higher prices for access to, certain sites or applications, but are less stringent on mobile internet providers and do not explicitly prohibit mobile ISP’s from practicing ‘paid prioritization’, where internet content providers who pay ISPs will see their content delivered to users more quickly, creating a hierarchy of internet access.
The Verizon court challenge, filed in the Federal Appeals Court in the District of Columbia, and an ‘Internet Freedom’ Bill introduced by Tennessee Republican Assemblywoman Marsha Blackburn both assert that the FCC exceeded its authority in introducing these rules.
Opponents of net neutrality argue that the web has thrived on deregulation, and that its development should be allowed to continue unobstructed. But according to web pioneer Tim Berners-Lee the internet’s continued development is under threat unless it has proper regulation. In a recent article in Scientific American he asked, “What if your ISP made it easier for you to connect to a particular online shoe store and harder to reach others? That would be powerful control.”
Chris Marsden, Director of the Internet Law L.L.M. at the University of Essex, and author of Net Neutrality: Towards a Co-Regulatory Solution, explains the consequences of ignoring this issue, “I think there’s a very simple reason, and that is what’s done on net neutrality is going to determine how you receive the type of content that you’re accessing on the internet.”
Chris says that despite European regulators’ reluctance to admit there is a problem in Europe of ISPs restricting certain traffic, such practices do exist, “What’s happening is that all of the people who just provide internet connectivity don’t want to be regulated so they’re basically denying there is a problem. Clearly there is a problem, and that’s why the director general of the BBC has been so open about that this week.”
BBC Director General Mark Thompson expressed his concern about ISPs charging for bandwidth priority in a speech at the Oxford Media Convention. Chris says that despite the fact that, “content providers are convinced we have a problem.” regulators have become what he calls, “the three wise monkeys of net neutrality. They basically say, we can’t see any evil, we can’t hear any evil, and so we’re not going to say there’s any evil.”
Opponents of net neutrality point to the lack of regulation of the internet as being the key to its success and claim that attempts to control the behaviour of internet service providers are against the spirit of deregulation that has characterized the internet’s success. Rather than create a level playing field for all, net neutrality will merely be a victory for large companies who hog bandwidth.
Rachel Alexander, editor of Intellectual Conservative says that net neutrality, “is going to pick winners which are technology companies that use a lot of bandwidth, and then it’s going to pick losers which are companies that are the backbone of the internet like Verizon, that provide access to everyone to use the internet.”
Rachel says that net neutrality rules are hampering competition in the ISP marketplace, “We’re seeing it right now with Metro PCS, net neutrality rules would stop this smaller, more competitive company from undercutting Verizon.”
She also suggests that if the Verizon case goes all the way to the Supreme Court then they are likely to be successful, “Just because we do have a more conservative Supreme Court right now.”
If Verizon are successful, then ISPs will be able to charge as they see fit for fast delivery of content. If that happens, as Tim Berners-Lee writes, “we could lose the freedom to connect with whichever Web sites we want.”
In Europe, Chris Marsden points out that these laws will change nothing unless, “the national regulators are willing to actually go ahead and actually tackle the issue by actually telling the service providers that they can’t monkey around with the speeds of our connection. The only regulators who look as if they might do that are the French, and possibly the Dutch.”
As regulators and national governments struggle to reach a consensus, the future of net neutrality, and by extension the way content is moved around on the internet itself, is unsure but what is sure the eventual outcome will affect every user of the net.