"The web can be made to work with any type of information ... what you create is limited only by your imagination."— Sir Tim Berners-Lee
In April 2014, the European Parliament adopted a new law restricting the ability of internet service providers to prioritise content from different content providers. At the same time, the Federal Communications Commission, America's regulatory body for the internet and other forms of telecommunications, began to review its own 2010 net neutrality guidelines. All of a sudden, net neutrality was in the headlines -- but what exactly is it, and what do we lose if it's threatened?
Defining net neutrality
The term "net neutrality" was coined in 2003 by Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu in 2003. Wu argued in favour of preventing internet service providers (ISPs) from discriminating between data traffic from different providers. Although Wu was the first to use the term, the idea of network neutrality, the idea has been around much longer -- earlier versions of the concept were even applied to telegraph networks in the 19th century.
At its heart, net neutrality is simple: in a truly neutral network, data packets on the internet are transmitted on a "first come, first served" basis -- no packet is given preferential treatment. A network that isn't neutral might give preferential treatment to data from a certain site.
Advocates of network neutrality claim that a non-neutral internet would allow service providers to restrict access to certain types of content. For instance, an ISP might make it easy for users of its service to access its own website, while simultaneously restricting traffic from its competitors. In this model, the ISP, rather than the users, would have control over what individuals could see on the internet.
In addition to restricting the ability of users to choose their own destinations on the internet, a network that discriminated could allow ISPs to interfere with competition. Additionally, because established companies already on the net would have a significant advantage in terms of preferential treatment by ISPs, new startup companies would find it much harder to establish themselves. As a result, the internet's legacy of innovation would be threatened.
On the surface, net neutrality seems like an obviously good thing. And indeed, some ISPs have publicly pledged to uphold neutrality. However, what service providers mean by "net neutrality" isn't always the same thing as what its advocates mean.
ISPs put forward two main arguments to suggest that the goal of a completely neutral internet is unworkable. First, they argue, ISPs need to be able to prioritise some packets, if only to maintain quality of service (QoS). Because they are prioritising only to maintain QoS and not to prioritise one type of data over another, some opponents of net neutrality legislation argue that this is not really a violation of net neutrality.
The second argument relies on the changing nature of the internet over the last 25 years. The modern internet is used for more than just sending emails and text files: streaming video services such as Netflix, cloud storage services such as Dropbox and video call services such as Skype put tremendous demands on ISPs. Advocates for the service providers argue that ISPs should be able to charge these firms extra fees to create a "fastlane" for their data on the network, making them easy to use. Neutrality advocates counter that the costs of these fees will simply be passed on to the consumer, effectively allowing the ISPs to charge extra for a service they are already providing.
A world without net neutrality
Advocates of net neutrality are concerned that ISPs freed from neutrality rules will create an internet that lacks the freedom and incentives for innovation that have characterised it so far. Many argue that net neutrality legislation is needed to protect this. But not everyone agrees.
Critics of net neutrality legislation often point out that we already live in a world without complete net neutrality. For instance, ISPs already sometimes filter access to file sharing sites, preventing users from violating copyrighted material. Opponents of net neutrality legislation argue that enforced neutrality could make it harder to prevent copyright violation and to crack down on other forms of illicit data such as child pornography.
While this could be true, there is at least one known case of an American ISP intentionally restricting service to certain types of activity, suggesting that . Given that ISPs often don't face direct competition, allowing them greater control over the experience of users could pose a serious threat to competition and innovation. Details of the legislation may need some attention, but a complete abandonment of net neutrality laws could have serious and far-reaching consequences for the future of the internet. It looks more likely to happen in the US than in Europe -- net neutrality in America is already much weaker -- but the huge impact of the American market means that any change to internet use in the US will have effects felt all over the world.