Net neutrality is in the news again. Here’s a quick update to help you understand the most common questions about the subject, starting with the most obvious one…
What is net neutrality?
Net neutrality is a concept which proposes that internet service providers (ISPs) must treat data on the Internet equally without giving preferential treatment to any publishers or platforms. This means that till the time that net neutrality is upheld, an ISP cannot slow down, speed up, or block specific services or otherwise regulate the data running through their infrastructure.
Okay, who’s against net neutrality?
More important than ‘who’ is ‘why’—why would anyone be against the free flow of data on the Internet? The answer is ISPs and cable networks with market monopolies and vested interests. Take Verizon for instance, a cable company that also owns AOL and Yahoo, it doesn’t take a stretch of imagination to figure that in the post-net neutrality era, Verizon will offer faster access to services from its own media and streaming platforms. Similarly, Comcast owns NBC; AT&T has a stake in Otter Media and is trying to merge with Time Warner. You get the idea.
Putting in-house media platforms on the “fast lane” is only half the picture. The other half is the freedom these ISPs will now have to de-proritize data from competing platforms, or charging an additional fee to be able to access them, and even outright block them. Essentially, if net neutrality is taken out of the picture, these networks will be free to engage in an open war to undermine each other while solidifying their own respective monopolies, presumably at the expense of users.
Wait, wasn’t this debate over already?
Well, it was. Regulations safeguarding net neutrality were enacted in 2015. But Ajit Pai, the FCC chairman who assumed office this year under the Trump administration, has been on a campaign to repeal the laws in favor of what he calls, “…a light-touch regulation.”
Why exactly Ajit wants the laws repealed is anybody’s guess. His explanations have ranged from vague platitudes to outright false claims such as “killing net neutrality will help the sick and disabled“.
Most media coverage of the development has been negative and tends to stop just short of implying that the FCC is compromising itself to the interests of the telecom lobby. The public backlash continues even as the previous chairman of FCC, Thomas Wheeler, has publicly slammed Ajit for his actions.
…eliminating net neutrality regulations will allow the big four ISPs to “make their own rules,” Wheeler said. Wheeler accused the “Trump FCC” of “walking away from the responsibility… to oversee networks” and “walking away from existing consumer protections for a fast, fair, and open Internet.
via Ars Technica
Despite all this opposition and controversy, as things stand, Ajit Pai and the FCC are still expected to continue with the rollback of net neutrality regulations.
What does net neutrality mean for consumers?
If net neutrality laws are repealed, consumers will be left vulnerable to differential pricing packages and schemes that ISPs may introduce to make more money. As one of the leading providers of video streaming services worldwide, Netflix is publicly opposing the net neutrality rollback, and the reason is simple—its services are data-heavy, something the ISPs will likely penalize its users going forward by asking them to pay more for the service to work.
Apart from selectively throttling bandwidth, ISPs could differentiate web services by type (such as social, news, entertainment) and start charging additional money to get access to these “packages”. The internet has never been free but it has always been equal, for consumers, the net neutrality rollback threatens to disrupt that equality in favor of ISPs making more money from the Internet data they provide.
What does net neutrality mean for web publishers?
Nothing good. As ISPs prioritize their own subsidiary media platforms, independent publishers may eventually be expected to pay their way to get in the “fast lane”, and while large publishers may be able to afford the overheads, it’s the smaller publishers—those who can’t afford to pay up—who will likely suffer the most by being relegated to the slow lane of the internet.
“I suspect that ISPs would create different tiers of data transmission speeds and prioritization,” says Fred Lane, an attorney who specializes in emerging technologies. “Large corporations would be in a position to negotiate preferential treatment in ways not available to smaller content producers.”
That said, even if larger publishers can afford to pay up, this is a bad time for the publishing industry to deal with the fallout of rolling back net neutrality when it’s already struggling with other issues such as ad blocking, ad fraud, and ad tech supply chains bogged down with hidden fees.