Just how important is net neutrality?
In spite of public protests, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced plans to end the use of net neutrality in 2015, and in June 2018 the US officially repealed the rules that restricted the way internet providers could treat data. The impact was quickly felt. Research released in September 2018 by Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts revealed that YouTube, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and NBC Sports were the main targets of slowing data speeds, or throttling.
But why is net neutrality such a big issue, what are the consequences of its repeal and what can you do to protect yourself from it and similar threats around the world?
What is net neutrality?
Simply, net neutrality is a principle that means everything on the internet should be readily available to access and that users are not blocked or restricted based on their activity. In other words, so long as you are not doing anything illegal, you are free to use your online services as you see fit.
This protection was formally adopted by the FCC in 2005, but with a new head of the organisation put in place as part of the Trump administration, protections were swiftly repealed. Many states have come out against the change, with 20 launching lawsuits and five issuing executive orders to resist the changes.
Why is it important?
Removing net neutrality puts corporations in control. ISPs can already see the types of activity their users are engaging in and some have fair use policies in place, allowing them to restrict the speeds of demanding users at peak times. Without net neutrality, this information could be used to further restrict access to certain types of content.
The idea of your ISP actively monitoring your activity is one thing, but this is not just about privacy. When service providers are able to identify your activity online, purchasing an internet connection could become more like signing up for a TV package, where you will be offered different bundles to choose from rather than getting access to everything.
This means streaming services might be on one internet bundle while social media is separate in another. This could see users forced to pay more for highly restricted online access. Limiting a vital resource that is currently treated like a utility will mean that full internet access would only be available to those who can afford it, limiting the voice of those who can’t.
This example is domesticated, but consider the impact that removing net neutrality could have if governments or organisations decided to block access to certain sites based on political motivations. Suddenly, the internet could be heavily censored and freedoms of expression severely restricted – much greater problems than the threat of low-resolution streaming.
Net neutrality around the world
While America is one of the highest profile cases, net neutrality is a big topic worldwide as many countries have been looking to change their own position in response to the news of the US repeal.
In response to the threat of repeal in America being repeated across the border, Canadian lawmakers made an effort to reaffirm their commitment to neutrality with bill M-168, which was supported in May 2018 and was designed to strengthen existing net neutrality rules with the intention of them eventually becoming law.
Despite this, a coalition of major broadcasters brought a proposal to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) just a few months later, hoping to set up an independent agency that would be able to shut down potential pirate sites without court approval. While it is not identical to removing net neutrality, the idea that corporations are actively attempting to gain unilateral powers over what can and can’t be online suggests there might be a bigger battle yet to come.
Net neutrality laws in India came into force in 2018 in response to a 2015 move by Telecom operator Airtel to add additional charges for calls made over the internet. Noticing this as a risk to a free internet, the Telecom Regulatory Association of India (TRAI) published a paper on the topic of net neutrality which caught the attention of the general public, and the support has not only resulted in new laws, but also made the resulting fines and restrictions on companies some of the toughest in the world.
While the EU’s Open Internet Regulations protect net neutrality across the continent, there are concerns that a new copyright law will normalise the filtering of content, by compelling online platforms to monitor the content posted by their users for copyright infringements.
While it might be an EU ruling, it will affect any company that provides services to EU users, meaning that these regulations would directly affect the monitoring and control of content across the entire internet. This idea is a bold contradiction of the notion of net neutrality.
Once these frameworks are in place, it will be easy for major companies such as Google and Facebook to use the same processes to filter content for reasons other than copyright. It’s a concern that once online freedoms are curtailed they cannot and will not be restored, as power will lie with corporations rather than the public.
What can you do about it?
While throttling policies are likely to become increasingly prevalent in the coming years, there are still measures the average user can make to ensure that their data is protected. More commonly known as a security tool, a Virtual Private Network, or VPN, service can help to protect you from unwanted interference in your online activity.
When a user connects to a VPN their connection is ‘tunnelled’ through servers based around the world, masking their activity. All that can be determined is that the user has connected to a VPN. Everything else, including their location, is hidden from view until they disconnect. By masking the activity, ISPs will be unable to determine what type of activity is taking place, and will be unable to throttle the user’s activity.
At the moment it is hard to determine when providers have changed their practices. Until tiered internet pricing becomes a standard practice, as it has in Portugal, providers are likely to keep this information close to their chest for fear of a backlash from the public. But this does not mean it’s not happening, and users around the world are only likely to experience more threats to their online freedoms in the future.