obrBy Fergus O'Sullivan — Last Updated: 07 Mar'18 2018-02-22T07:24:02+00:00

What is Net Neutrality and Why Is It Important?

In a way, 2017 was the year of net neutrality. Though the concept is older than last year, for many it was unknown or just a peripheral matter until the FCC decided to abolish it. But what is net neutrality, and how does it affect you? In this article, Cloudwards.net is going to explore these questions, as well as many others.

Before we do that, though, we would like to emphasize that net neutrality is not purely an American matter: right now several countries are debating its pros and cons or have legislation in place that protects it — or attacks it. We’ll talk a little more how countries besides the U.S. tackle the questions surrounding it, but first let’s get to what it is.

What Is Net Neutrality?

The first question is the easiest, in that we can answer it with a single sentence, straight from the dictionary. Net neutrality means that internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, without favoring or blocking particular products or websites.

Right now, no matter if you’re reading Cloudwards.net, looking at coffee machines or binging Netflix, you’re doing so without your ISP throttling bandwidth, denying access or otherwise hindering you in any way.

The term was first coined by Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu in 2002, when he was an assistant professor in Virginia, in an essay which went into the rights of consumers on the one hand, and the rights and duties of ISPs on the other. Though the piece doesn’t make for easy reading, the gist of it is that consumers should be allowed to do whatever they want on the internet, with ISPs’ rights limited to policing abuse of the network.

If net neutrality were abolished, certain sites would be slower to load or would require a special plan to access. Worse yet, ISPs would get the right to block access to certain sites without prior approval from the authorities, which is great if you’re talking kiddie porn, but not so great if it’s a political site, say.

In most countries in the world, if you’re on a 5Mbps connection while reading this, you’ll be bringing that full 5Mbps to bear on each and every site you visit, regardless of its location or content. At the same time, any site that hasn’t been slapped down by a judge is freely accessible, as well. That’s the practical effect of net neutrality.

If you’re a habitual internet user, this seems natural and logical to you, most likely. In the beginning of the interwebz — you know, when people in power thought it was a series of tubes — it more or less was, too: all sites were accessible in the same way, though U.S. ISPs were up to some shenanigans then too, but more on that later.

ISPs and Net Neutrality

Thing is, for many people the internet is just another way to make money, and not just in the way of writing up reviews or selling books. For internet service providers it’s a commodity that they can sell. You subscribe to a plan, they give you the web: simple as that. A smart CEO, however, is always on the lookout for new ways in which they can maximize revenue and profit.

When it comes to ISPs, American ones are particularly predatory, for instance with the lobbying efforts they have put in to make your data a commodity. In a similar vein, the idea has come around to start putting a price on the ability to access certain sites, not just having the internet.

For example, you could purchase a regular plan from an ISP that has a speed of 10Mbps, much like you do now, but instead of that applying to all sites it only applies to some. Some sites, especially ones that guzzle bandwidth like streaming sites, would require that either you, the customer, buy a special plan that covers the same speeds for it or would make the service itself make a deal with the ISP.

Of course, this is the mild version of a net neutrality-free future: it could also become more like cable, where you pay for a basic subscription allowing you to use email or something, but every other site will cost you extra. If you don’t pay up, no Netflix for you. The possibilities are only limited by corporate imagination, which throws up some nasty scenarios.

All this would be, of course, blatantly unfair on several levels. First off, it would be a reversal of the way we do business now, which we have grown to know and love. To change it now, without a proper reason (more on that in a bit), runs counter to the way the internet has developed.

It’s also unfair because people who are already paying for internet access — most plans are perfectly affordable, of course, but they aren’t exactly cheap, either — would have to pay more just to access Facebook or Instagram. As this may very well be the main reason people get internet in the first place, it seems a little odd to charge them extra just to be able to access certain parts of it.

No Net Neutrality: the Philippines

That’s kind of what’s happening in the Philippines, which currently is the only country in the world where net neutrality does not reign. Though it isn’t as lawless as the U.S. is setting out to be — regulators have some control, still — ISPs do enjoy far more freedom than they do elsewhere.

Because the government is still keeping some kind of hand in, the situation is a little different there than the doomsday scenarios sketched above. Most Filipinos on a regular WiFi or ethernet connection won’t notice much difference that they would in, say, Europe, but mobile users are screwed.

When you subscribe to a mobile internet plan in the Philippines, you get a monthly allotment of data, much like you do anywhere else. However, you can get around these caps by taking on another plan that removes certain sites from your limit. The pic below should explain a little better.

We’ve taken the liberty of just using this ISP’s most expensive plans, which cost around $20, $12 and $6, respectively (or at least at time of writing, the Philippine peso isn’t too stable). None of these plans are particularly cheap considering the average annual income for a family is around $5000 and household expenditure is on the rise.

As an example we’ll take the 299 plan, which gets us a measly 1.5GB (compare that to your monthly usage over WiFi), and access to three sites from a pre-approved list. This may seem like an okay deal at first, until you realize that all those sites are entertainment sites. To keep from hitting your cap, you’re likely to only use those sites and minimize your use of others.

As this article points out, having the caps set relatively low and only non-news sites freely accessible, you’re narrowing the stream of information people receive and thus constricting public debate. On top of that, you’re also choking startups, which an economy like that in the Philippines desperately needs to get people to work in this digital age.

Scarily enough, because the EU’s otherwise excellent net neutrality rules don’t mention data plans, Portuguese mobile users are now stuck in a comparable situation. There, you get a regulated internet (more on the EU’s rules below), but you can pay extra to exclude certain services from counting toward your data limit. Though not as constrictive as the Philippine situation, it’s still cause for worry, as EuroNews points out.

Net Neutrality No More: the US

If you think that the situation in the Philippines is bad, it’s practically rosy in comparison to what’s set to happen in its former colonial overlord, the United States of America. You’ve probably already picked up quite a bit about what’s happening there over the last few months, but let’s recap the situation a little here.

Under President Obama, in 2015 the Federal Communications Commission enacted some of the toughest net neutrality laws in the world, ensuring that telecom providers would have to give free access to all sites, at the same speed, to all consumers. Though this may just seem like common sense, it was also a direct effort to rein in ISPs, which had been misbehaving up till then.

Though the list of abuses is too long to reproduce here (that list would give George Orwell nightmares, you may want to read it), the scariest examples include AT&T, Sprint and Verizon ganging up to block Google Wallet in a failed attempt to keep their own epayment system viable. Another was Comcast blocking torrenting applications on the sly to keep their buddies in Hollywood happy.

Thus, the FCC Open Internet order was generally seen as a good thing when it came into being just a few years ago: it kept ISPs from meddling with what people got to see on the internet by classifying ISPs as telecommunication providers rather than broadband providers. Though this may seem like a petty distinction, it meant that ISPs came under a much stricter set of rules, which had been put in place during a much earlier era (for a history lesson, click here).

ISPs most certainly didn’t like it, but they couldn’t do much about it as President Obama and his FCC chairman were deaf to their entreaties. That tide, of course, turned last year with the changing of the guard in Washington. Though many suspected the Trump administration would place corporate stooges in key positions, the appointment of Ajit Pai to the chair of the FCC was still a rather blatant bit of cronyism.

Pai and Net Neutrality

A former lawyer for Verizon — one of the, if not the, biggest players in the internet market in the U.S. — Pai has never made it a secret that he thinks “the internet wasn’t broken in 2015 when these heavy-handed regulations were adopted.” Though it’s definitely not the only time that The Donald put a fox in charge of a henhouse — Betsy DeVos springs to mind — even by those standards this was something else.

Pai claims his main reason for wanting to abolish net neutrality is based on his desire to see more competition among broadband providers, but that’s hard to take seriously since his former employer years ago ganged up with AT&T and Tim Warner to divvy up the United States so as not to compete directly with each other in too many places. Apparently “cartel” is only a dirty word when it’s other people doing it.

Pai wasted little time in setting the wheels in motion to repeal net neutrality. Despite protests from tech companies large and small (including activist VPN provider PIA), special interest groups, lawmakers and pretty much anyone else that mattered, in December 2017 he got his way and the FCC voted to reclassify ISPs.

Seemingly wanting to rub salt into the wound, Ajit Pai released a video in which he mocked people worried about the effect of repealing net neutrality. While it was likely supposed to allay fears, the way it was put together gave the impression that all the internet was good for was geekery and basically shamed the anti-repeal camp for overreacting. It wasn’t exactly a PR victory and the video was quickly removed from YouTube.

Fighting the Good Fight

However, the story isn’t completely over: the new FCC ruling isn’t set to take effect until April and several members of Congress have announced a counteroffensive. Without getting too deeply into U.S. parliamentary politics, there is currently still a window where the new rules can be stopped in the legislature, while several members of the judiciary are also taking action.

However, skeptics may be forgiven for being leery of all this: after all, the FCC rules passed through Congress just fine at an earlier stage thanks to generous greasing of palms by ISPs (on both sides of the aisle, it should be noted). Much more heartening is the action taken by the governors of Montana and New York, who each have taken steps to ensure net neutrality in their states.

Though it would be nice to end this American tale with a “happy ever after,” currently it is unclear how all this will play out. If luck runs good, either several governors will get together and sign more orders into law like those in Montana and New York, if luck runs bad, Americans may find themselves with a much less free internet, that will likely be more expensive, to boot. Only time will tell.

Net Neutrality Under Attack: Canada

Not that the U.S. is the only country dealing with net neutrality issues: its northern neighbor is fending off an attack of its own. Though nobody is suggesting that the Great White North abolish net neutrality entirely — or at least not yet — there is cause for some serious concern.

The Canadian affair revolves around that bugbear of Hollywood and the music industry, piracy. A coalition of Canadian media companies have petitioned the CRTC (the Canadian equivalent of the FCC, though with a bit more bite to their bark) to block sites that feature pirated content, particularly torrent sites.

This may ring familiar: a few years ago several European judges told ISPs there to block access to The Pirate Bay, Kickass Torrents and other alternative torrent sites (we’ll pick the Netherlands as the best example). However, the Canadian process as outlined by Bell, Rogers et al., would bypass the judiciary altogether, making it more akin to what’s going on south of the border.

This bypassing of the judiciary would set a scary precedent: though you could argue the merits of blocking access to certain sites, for whatever reason, we expect judges to at least give every side a fair hearing. The fact that these Canadian corporations want to bypass the fellows with the funny wigs may give the impression that their motives are not as pure as they say.

Net Neutrality Done Right: the EU

So far the editorial team here at Cloudwards.net have probably come off as prophets of doom, whispering dire imprecations on digital street corners. Though that image is not entirely untrue, we’ll now turn to one great example of a part of the world where net neutrality is being done by the books: the EU.

Though it’s not the most popular institution in the world, or even within its membership, the EU has done a few things right: the European Court of Justice is a pretty great institution, it has prevented another European war by forcing people to talk each other to death instead and it has put in place some great net neutrality laws that all its members are forced to adhere to.

EU Directive 2009/140/EC protects net neutrality (skip to the last page unless you really like reading legalese), while another directive establishes BEREC (Body of European Regulators of Electronic Communications), a supranational organization that acts as watchdog for not just net neutrality, but also EU citizens’ digital privacy.

Though getting into the nitty-gritty of how it all works is far beyond the scope of this article (also, we’re not out to cure insomnia), what it boils down to is that ISPs are prohibited from messing with the manner in which people in the EU access sites and also prevents sites from being blocked.

Loopholes abound, of course, and in some countries it’s downright frightening how easy it is to get a judge to allow shutdowns, like the way The Pirate Bay was blocked in the Netherlands. Also, this article by Reuters shows how other loopholes are being exploited, including a deeper look at what’s happening in Portugal. However, on the whole, the EU has some of the best legislation around, with the exception of maybe India.

Still, however, every once in a while an offensive against net neutrality will be mounted. The last one was in 2016, which was successfully beaten back by a citizens’ initiative. Though the situation is good for now, people who believe in a free and open internet will have to remain vigilant.

Final Thoughts

With that we’ll conclude: as you’ve probably noticed, net neutrality is a huge issue that affects billions, and we haven’t even gone into the actual tech of it, even.

However, understanding net neutrality and how it works isn’t all there is to it: it is above all a political issue and there is very little regular people can do. Many of these discussions are held behind closed doors and involve stakes the likes of which many of us can’t even imagine.

In a way it’s frustrating for us here at Cloudwards.net, because we’re big proponents of DIY solutions. Is your country making it easier to spy on you? Read our online privacy guide and learn to protect yourself. Is there censorship? Get a VPN and tunnel out.

Not that VPNs are useless in this regard: most of our best VPN providers should be able to bypass net neutrality restrictions, allowing you to access sites your ISP has blocked. Nor are VPN services particularly worried about the throttling issues.

As Andrei Rusu of CyberGhost explains, “generally, the speed and usability of VPNs are not affected by the end of net neutrality per se,” adding, however, that speeds could sometimes be affected “since ISPs and web companies will have full power over the internet.”

However, DIY solutions will be limited and not having net neutrality will hurt the economy worldwide. Though you could solve some of the problems for yourself, others will still be hurting. The only thing that can really help is forcing the people we elected to keep net neutrality in place. Depending on where you live, you could either support an activist group directly, or simply send a letter to your representative or member of parliament.

Though it may seem like joining www.battleforthenet.com or its Canadian equivalent is pointless — the forces attacking net neutrality are, after all, so much bigger than us — the only way to test that theory is to try it out. Earlier efforts to abolish our right for a free internet have been fought off successfully in the EU and there is no reason that can’t be reproduced on the other side of the Atlantic.

With that plea we’ll leave you: in an overview like this there’s always something you’ve left out, so we hope to hear from you in the comments below. Thank you for reading and stay safe and free.

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