Posted on October 26, 2017 by staff

What is net neutrality – and why should you care?


There is a debate raging across America.

Donald Trump’s  Federal Communications Commission chairman, Ajit Pai, has ‘net neutrality’ in his crosshairs and emotions are running at fever pitch.

So what has gotten everybody so worked up?

For those who don’t know, the simple principle of net neutrality is that all traffic should be treated equally. Effectively ISPs (internet service providers) need to act as dumb pipes a bit like how water companies pump water around with no bias over any particular drop of that water.

So whether you’re watching the latest Game of Thrones on Sky Go or emailing pictures of the kiddy winks to your distant relatives in Australia, the traffic is treated equally.

Seems pretty fair, right? Largely yes, but what if I’m prepared to pay a bit extra to get my online gaming traffic some priority over those pictures? After all, it doesn’t matter if they go a bit slower.

What if Netflix is prepared to pay the ISPs some cash to make their streaming quicker? That’s great for me as a Netflix subscriber and I’m sure Facebook will cough up to make sure that’s fast so that’s Mrs Wheeldon happy too. Everyone’s a winner…

Except for the losers that is. Competition is good, it’s how innovation happens and if the new social network or video streaming service runs slow, safe to say it won’t last that long. And they are unlikely to have the financial force to go around paying all the ISPs to make things go faster.

And what about the online gamer who can’t pay that bit extra to prioritise their traffic? Is that just tough luck?

One of the things that I love about the internet is that it is a leveler, it gives everyone opportunity regardless of background or means.

It allows businesses to spring up overnight in a back bedroom and for Mrs Boggins’ blog about the best Bakewell tarts to attract thousands of visitors from all over the world to read that as fast as any other piece of content.

One of the key arguments for proponents of killing net neutrality is that market forces will take care of it. Logic would stand that if your ISP is blocking or throttling content then you move to another. Now that’s OK if you have a lot of choice, but that isn’t always the case, particularly in rural areas. But let’s give the benefit of the doubt and assume I can choose from any ISP I want.

So let’s play that out a bit further. Sky, BT and Virgin all have their own TV offering so it could make sense for them to throttle other competitive solutions like Netflix just a little to make it annoying. Would they prioritise their own video services? Hell yeah!

So the result is I would move to another ISP with no bias around TV, but do they have their own cloud storage solution which they are pushing like crazy?

Low and behold Google Drive, Dropbox and other cloud storage solutions slow down. You get the idea here!

And how exactly would you choose your ISP, would they list all the sites and services they block, throttle or prioritise and if they do, that’d be a hell of a pick ‘n mix bag to choose from. We struggle to understand the tariff on a gas bill let alone figuring that mess out!

I think it would be a very sad day for the web if this happens.

But don’t despair as it isn’t something we have to worry about in the UK, or at least not yet. This principle of the open internet is enshrined in EU law. The Brexit factor could change that – but not for now, at least.