The Net Neutrality debate is just getting going here in the UK. The US has been engaged in it for some time – indeed, Google and Verizon have added combined in an attempt to influence the public debate in recent months. But what is Net Neutrality?
Net Neutrality is a misnomer for a concept that isn’t neutral at all. Proponents of net neutrality argue that regulation or some sort of government intervention is a necessary requirement in order to ensure that the traffic on the Internet remains balanced. Effectively, people looking to log onto their email or view a YouTube video should be able to do that equally. The Internet traffic to one site shouldn’t take precedence over the Internet traffic to another.
At first and in theory, this might seem like a good idea. People will be able to access content from anywhere else in the world, at the same time, with the same ability. Fantastic. But what happens when (for example) a user buys a film on iTunes and wants to download it, and another customer who gets their connection to the Internet from the same company wants to log into and check their email? Should both of these actions be treated equally?
The answer is no. More bandwidth is required to download a film than is required to check email. Network providers like BT, Verizon, TalkTalk, and AT&T know this. They also know that if they treat all network traffic equally, they are likely to have many angry customers who are accidentally disconnected from their internet just as their film finishes downloading.
The prioritisation of Internet traffic by companies is called ‘network management’. Companies who provide access to the Internet for their customers do this all time – and have done so since the early 1990s. Managing Internet traffic is complex, but in doing so companies can provide access for all their customers specifically when they need greater or lesser bandwidth. The end result is not often seen by customers unless network speed slows to a crawl or shuts down altogether.
Proponents of net neutrality claim that all Internet traffic needs to be treated equally so that the freedom and the spirit of the Internet are preserved. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web weighed in on this: “there are a lot of companies who would love to be able to limit what webpages you can see, and governments would love to be able to slow down information going down to particular sites”. He went on to say, “The moment you let net neutrality go, you lose the web as it is. You lose something essential – the fact that any innovator can dream up an idea and set up a website at some random place and let it just take off from word of mouth. You can end up helping humanity and make a profit out of it once you’ve got a domain name.”
Berners-Lee is usually right in all things Internet-related, but here he is wrong for a very simple reason: this would limit access to the Internet, because net neutrality is government regulation of the Internet. Any government – or even the EU for that matter – would have to pass a series of laws and legislation limiting the commercial ability of public and private companies who provide Internet access. This means that the management of their own business for the benefit of their customers would be regulated by the government – and not by industry standards as it is today in the UK. Furthermore, customers who today can change Internet providers if they are receiving poor service or pay more for greater broadband would no longer be able to switch to a different provider because, effectively, all providers would have the same and equal quality of service. This is "equality" achieved by dragging everyone down to the same low level.
The Internet is free and open as it is – except when governments get involved. Look at China and Iran – "net neutrality" need never be a debate in those countries because their Internet is already regulated by the government. Let’s not call this debate "net neutrality" - because it is not. Let’s call it net regulation. The Internet will be fine without government intervention, just as it has been so far. Just look at all of the entrepreneurs who have built businesses and created jobs and contributed to the growth of the economy.