What is Net Neutrality - The Ultimate Guide (Updated 2024)
Net neutrality often hits the news headlines, so what is net neutrality and how does it affect you?
In this article, we’ll explain the ins and outs of net neutrality and why there’s such a big fuss about it. We’ll also explain what you can do to get around unfair restrictions if net neutrality becomes a thing of the past.
What Is Net Neutrality?
The concept of net neutrality may at first seem confusing, but put simply, it can be defined as the equal treatment of all internet content by internet service providers.
For years, under both the Bush and Obama administrations, the United States’ Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the regulatory body that governs the internet, attempted to enforce and maintain net neutrality.
In 2015, the FCC succeeded in passing a broad net neutrality order – called the ‘Open Internet Order’ – after a series of legal battles with various ISPs.
These regulations prohibited ISPs from blocking lawful content, applications, or services; prevented ISPs from slowing down (throttling) specific applications or services; and banned ISPs from accepting fees for preferential treatment such as faster speeds to sites or users who pay for the privilege.
According to these guidelines, ISPs such as Verizon and Comcast, for example, must provide equal access to all internet content to their end users.
In other words, ISPs shouldn’t throttle, restrict, or speed up access speeds when their customers are visiting particular websites, downloading content, watching streaming services, or viewing other content. Access to all content should be equal and there should be no discrimination against any type of legal content for any reason.
However, in mid-2018, the now Republican-controlled FCC repealed these guidelines.
Although there hasn’t been a major shift in how ISPs operate since the net neutrality protections were revoked, the door is now open for far-reaching changes that could affect us all.
In April 2019, the House of Representatives passed a bill, called the ‘Save the Internet Act’, to reinstate net neutrality protections. At the time of writing, this bill still needs to be passed by the Senate and approved by President Trump, so the future of net neutrality is unfortunately still in limbo.
If the bill does pass, it will mean that ISPs would once again be required to treat all online content equally and would be forbidden from slowing down, speeding up, or blocking access to specific content.
Why is Net Neutrality Important?
Those who support net neutrality believe that keeping the internet an open playing field is crucial for growth and innovation.
If ISPs are given the power to choose their favorites or companies are allowed to buy their level of accessibility, many new companies may not get the chance to bloom and new technologies might not get the chance to develop.
Imagine, for example, if these restrictions to net neutrality had been in place earlier in the 2000s. Brands like YouTube, Netflix, and Facebook may never have had the chance to develop.
Net neutrality is also important for safeguarding freedom of expression and speech. If only a handful of large ISPs and companies are dominating the viewable internet, then they have the power to suppress or sway online opinions and create a censorship situation.
Those challenging net neutrality claim that most of the largest ISPs have said they will not throttle, block or promote specific content.
The FCC have also said that ISPs will not be able to hinder their competitors due to antitrust laws; however, many neutrality proponents suggest that these are all empty promises and that we’ll quickly start to see ISPs falling for the lure of companies offering large sums of money for priority treatment. This will spell doom for smaller companies that can’t afford to compete.
Who Does Net Neutrality Affect?
Without net neutrality, the internet as we know it could become a thing of the past. There probably won’t be huge changes straight away, but you can expect a slow, steady descent as ISPs start taking advantage of their new status.
This will likely start with ISPs broadening their current practice of letting favored services be accessed without it counting towards your data allowance, but the accessing of other services will use more data.
From there, you’ll likely see throttling or prioritization of content and this may become extreme, until eventually, we’ll see the introduction of tiered internet plans where the premium plans will give you access to content or services you now take for granted.
If you’re familiar with this concept from its use in countries outside of the US (such as Portugal, for instance), you’ll see something very similar, such as being charged extra for using social media, streaming video, and even accessing email!
The limitations on your internet freedom aren't confined just to websites and services. They impact activities such as online gaming, live streaming or uploading, and even the platforms you rely on for viewing, downloading, and uploading content.
Imagine a world where you have to pay more money than you can earn to sell your goods on eBay, are restricted from live streaming to Twitch unless you pay for a premium service, can’t watch Amazon Prime unless you’re watching it on an Apple device, or are not able to play Fortnite at all unless you change your ISP!
On top of that, the fees we already pay service providers (movie streaming services, for instance) will likely go up, as they’ll be forced to cover the costs our ISPs charge them for the privilege of being part of a package.
If you’re a website owner, you may find yourself having to pay advertising costs, and then an additional fee to allow people to actually access your site after they’ve clicked your advert! This all means less money and opportunity for small internet businesses, streamers, and internet personalities, and more money being pumped into huge corporations.
Who is Challenging Net Neutrality?
There are a number of net neutrality critics who come from a variety of fields. These critics include the Trump administration overall, as well as the FCC chairman Ajit Pai, and his two fellow Republican commissioners who voted 3-to-2 against net neutrality in the mid-2018 repeal.
They also include some ISPs, computer science and internet academics, tele-equipment and computer hardware manufacturers, economists, as well as some broadband and telecommunications companies, including Cisco, Comcast, and Verizon.
There are a number of other companies and individuals who have stated that they are undecided in their stance but oppose some aspects of net neutrality.
For example, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt has said that Google is committed to net neutrality but, like Verizon, Google’s view is that it’s ok to discriminate against different types of data (such as prioritizing email transmission over video, for instance); however, they are opposed to discriminating against content within those data types (for example, you wouldn’t favor one artist’s music clip over another or one brand’s website over another).
Then there are a number of other individuals and organizations – primarily in the civil rights field – who agree with the freedom of net neutrality in principle, but feel the current model of net neutrality that classifies it as a utility would prevent investment in low-income areas and harm minority groups.
Here are a few of the primary reasons that net neutrality critics want a repeal:
- Removing net neutrality will free the internet from government regulation – The FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, is one critic who has stated this argument and has suggested that keeping net neutrality would cause the internet to effectively become a ‘public utility’, allowing the government to control it and monitor internet traffic. Some net neutrality supporters have said that this is just scaremongering, while others have claimed it is an outright lie and the government has no more power if net neutrality protections were reinstated than they have had previously.
- Data use is not egalitarian and its use is not compensated – Every internet user’s needs are different, so their data use is also different. Opponents of net neutrality say that the people who use a smaller amount of data are paying for the people who are using huge amounts of data. They also suggest that enormous amounts of data are wasted and because of the way ISPs currently bill their consumers, this is not fairly compensated for. They believe it would be fairer to charge users based on how much data they use and repealing net neutrality would prevent data wastage. This extra income could then be used to improve internet infrastructure.
- Illegal content flourishes under net neutrality – Because net neutrality means freedom and non-discrimination, opponents say that this leaves the internet open to illegal or inappropriate content.
- Net neutrality discriminates against the non-wealthy – Critics of net neutrality claim that the current pricing schemes by ISPs make it difficult for people to find cheap internet connections. They claim that repealing net neutrality would allow for smaller, basic pricing tiers to be extremely affordable.
What’s the Link Between Net Neutrality and Data Privacy?
Many people don’t realize that there will be data privacy risks if net neutrality is repealed. These include:
- Risks to your data – In order to determine how to filter traffic and throttle speeds, ISPs will need to monitor your content usage and other data. During this process, your data will be stored, which opens ISPs up to malicious hackers. Yes, your ISP is probably already storing your data, but not at the same levels that they will be once net neutrality is gone.
- Restricted use of VPNs, proxies, etc – Without net neutrality, there are a number of ISPs that will jump at the chance to restrict the use of VPNs, proxies, Tor, and others in order to ensure the limits they impose on their end-users can’t be circumvented.If ISPs do this, it will mean that you won’t have the same ability to protect yourself against online threats, disguise your internet connections in public places, and bypass unjust geo-restrictions or censorship.
- Monopolizing important services – If ISPs decide to create their own essential or important services – such as an online security suite, for example – they will then have the ability to throttle their customers’ use of competing services, creating a monopoly on important or essential services.This may seem far-fetched, but similar has happened before, with ISPs charging competing services higher fees, throttling access to them, or even completely blocking their usage by customers.
These are just a few of the security and data privacy-related concerns that have been pointed out by supporters of net neutrality.
There are other potential risks – such as ISP-level ad-based injected malware, access to ISP tracking tags, and more – but these risks are less certain at this point in time.
What is certain is that the risks to your data can be prevented now and in the future by using a solid VPN. We recommend ExpressVPN as it’s a great all-rounder with military-grade security features, an automatic kill switch, and a rigorous no-logs policy.
Net neutrality offers equal treatment of all internet content, making the internet a fair place for all. Unfortunately, if the Senate does not pass the ‘Save the Internet Act,’ net neutrality may soon become a thing of the past. Without net neutrality, our liberties may be throttled in line with our access to some online content.
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