Net neutrality ensures every packet of data transferred on the internet gets equal treatment, and it’s essential for a free and open internet.
•5 min read
Hi, I’m Lexie! I write about information security, Bitcoin, and privacy.
Net neutrality (before 2003, known as “common carrier concept”) describes the idea that internet service providers (ISPs) should route data indiscriminately of its type or origin. For example, a video should have the same priority, no matter if it is served by YouTube or a small competitor.
Net neutrality is an important principle of internet regulation. Despite being regarded as a cornerstone of successful innovation in an open and free internet, net neutrality is under threat from ISPs, large corporations, and governments.
What does net neutrality mean?
Every packet of data transferred through the cables and switches of internet providers should be treated the same, regardless of application, user, content, or platform.
In practice, net neutrality means that your ISP is not allowed to scrutinize your internet use and slow down, or throttle, packets based on what service you’re viewing. ISPs would not be allowed to favor companies that they have agreements with and, for example, speed up YouTube while slowing down Vimeo.
It’s because of neutrality that ISPs are often regulated similarly to public utility companies (common carriers), which are not allowed to discriminate in delivering their service. For example, during a power outage or a water shortage, your utility company will likely be prohibited from favoring some households over others.
Why net neutrality is so important
The idea of net neutrality is seen as the most important principle to guarantee healthy competition between internet companies and make it easy for users to adopt internet innovations.
Without net neutrality, an ISP could collude with a video streaming service and deliver that service’s videos with high speed and quality while limiting all other services to slow speeds and poor quality.
The high-speed video streaming service would then be able to raise prices, share the profits with the ISP, and never have to worry about competition.
Who is threatening net neutrality and why?
Internet conglomerates and ISPs threaten net neutrality. The two groups dislike the competition of a free and open market and would prefer to create a monopolistic environment where they can overcharge for inferior products—similar to how cable companies did (and still do!) before the internet.
Some examples of net neutrality breaches in the past:
- Throttling of BitTorrent traffic
- Offering free data, but only for a particular company (like Facebook or Spotify)
- Disabling of Apple Facetime
- Blocking of free internet calling services
Some large internet companies also stand accused of dismantling the principle of net neutrality. Facebook’s internet.org campaign aims to deliver free internet access to the developing world, but at the same time, it will restrict access to certain platforms and heavily favor companies owned by Facebook (WhatsApp, Instagram).
The fear is that without the principle of net neutrality, nobody will be able to create an internet startup anymore, because ISPs will favor the traffic of the major incumbent monopolies.
Net neutrality rules around the world
Net neutrality rules were adopted in the United States by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 2005. However, the legal basis of the FCC rules remained contentious, and repeated attempts to turn them into law failed in Congress.
In 2017, under a new administration, the FCC decided to repeal its rules. The repeal went into effect in 2018 despite many online protests.
While individual countries may still decide on stronger net neutrality rules, the European Union has been setting a minimum standard since 2002. This standard still allows telecoms to downgrade their customers’ services under some circumstances.
Some European countries have robust net neutrality laws, such as the Netherlands and Slovenia, but others, like Portugal, allow for discriminating pricing models that by most people’s definitions violate net neutrality rules.
The Brazilian Civil Rights Framework for the Internet (Marco Civil da Internet) of 2014 in principle upholds the idea of net neutrality but has also blocked services like WhatsApp.
China does not have net neutrality laws and regularly censors services and data.
Since 2018, India has strong net neutrality rules that ban any form of data discrimination.
Is net neutrality the perfect solution?
In theory, yes. But there are many instances when net neutrality is far from ideal. Some data simply has a different priority compared with other data. It seems absurd to route a computer backup at the same priority as a phone call, for instance, and the world’s bandwidth use would be far more efficient if data were assigned an express and low priority.
Sadly, we have no mechanism to assess the priority of data accurately. If we were to allow internet service providers to decide, we would end up with monopolistic behavior, and if we let the users, or companies, make the call, we would likely face a situation in which everybody would flag their data as high priority.
How we could keep net neutrality
With the rise of cryptocurrencies, it might one day be possible to pay for bandwidth, not on a month-by-month or GB-by-GB basis, but by attaching a price to each requested packet based on priority.
The ISP would collect this fee as a reward and be incentivized to deliver some data first. Of course, this might mean that a GB of online videoconference footage would cost far more than a GB of backing up data, or a GB of BitTorrent, but it is a more efficient use of bandwidth.
As long as the user—not the internet service—pays for the data, ISPs and conglomerates would have little opportunity to collude. Streaming a movie in high speed from the biggest provider would cost just as much as streaming it from the smallest provider.
What you can do to save net neutrality
If you suspect that your ISP is throttling your bandwidth selectively or blocking certain services, you can use a VPN to get around it. Your ISP will not be able to look inside your encrypted VPN tunnel and will not be able to slow some services down while prioritizing others.
To protect net neutrality, you can also contact your local regulatory agency or legislator to let them know that this is something you find important.
Let us know your thoughts on net neutrality in the comments below.
- Throttling of BitTorrent traffic