What is net neutrality and what does it mean for the UK?

Today marks a huge turning point in the future of the web.

What is net neutrality and what does it mean for the UK?

The repeal of the net neutrality laws in the US are due to take effect, 60 days after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in Washington voted three to two to repeal the landmark 2015 rules. These net neutrality rules stop internet service providers (ISPs) charging websites more for delivering certain services, which would ultimately be passed onto customers. 

The Commissioner of the FCC, Ajit Pai, wants to reclassify internet providers from “utilities” to “information companies” and this vote just took a worrying step in that direction. It means ISPs will be legally allowed to throttle speeds of content running across their network and potentially charge customers more for faster access. This will create a tiered internet and completely undermines the web’s openeness.

April 23 is the earliest date parts of these changes can come into force, yet experts believe ISPs will “wait until consumers aren’t paying attention.” The rules that cover how companies can collect data under the new rules are yet to be approved by the Office of Management and Budget, and that isn’t expected to come into force – or at least be announced – until 27 April. 


This chart, created by the US advocacy group People Demand Action, is a simple way of showing what the changes would mean

Ahead of December’s vote, analysis of public comments made on the FCC’s plan, used to gauge how people in the US view the proposals and which could ultimately sway members of the commission in their views, showed signs of fraud. A staggering two million were filed using stolen identities. 

“Millions of fake comments have corrupted the FCC public process — including two million that stole the identities of real people, a crime under New York law,” New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in an statement. “Yet the FCC is moving full steam ahead with a vote based on this corrupted process, while refusing to cooperate with an investigation.”

Some comments were even submitted using names of dead people.

Break The Internet campaign

Fight for the Future, Demand Progress and the Freepress Action Fund, recently teamed up to launch the #BreakTheInternet campaign. It is calling on all web users to show support against the FCC’s net neutrality plans.

The campaign wants people to contact congress in the first instance to object to the plans. It is then encouraging people to change their profile picture on Twitter, post a particular Story on Instagram, upload a #BreakTheInternet photo to Snapchat, change their relationship status on Facebook, add a new job position on LinkedIn, post threads on Reddit or embed the protest code on their own site. There is also a selection of banners and images, too. 

This protest followed a strongly worded letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, written last month by more than 200 tech companies including Reddit, Twitter, and Airbnb, appear to bemoan the proposals claiming: “Economic growth is possible because of the free and open internet. Our current net neutrality rules support innovation and give all businesses the opportunity to compete equally for consumers. With strong net neutrality protections, the internet is an open marketplace where any business can compete, allowing individuals to start companies easily, market their products across the country, and connect with customers anywhere worldwide.”

The letter was written on a Google Doc, though, which seemed a little odd, so Alphr contacted Reddit and Twitter to confirm it is legitimate.   

Following the vote, Mozilla tweeted: “We’re angry. But the fight isn’t over — because Congress can still act. You can tell Congress to stop.”

What is net neutrality?

Net neutrality is the concept that all online traffic should be treated equally whether it’s an email, a social-media post, a voice call, a shopping purchase or a YouTube video. It effectively means web access without restriction and discrimination, and it ensures that the internet remains free and open – not only by preventing broadband providers from blocking content but by stopping companies paying more to benefit from faster delivery. It is now seriously under threat in the US and some of the biggest names in tech are trying to save it.

Does the UK have net neutrality?

Yes, at the moment. For just over a year, the EU has banned the blocking, throttling or discrimination of online content, applications, and services. This means that ISPs are not allowed to restrict or make it difficult to access a service and it prevents them from slowing down certain traffic to the detriment of any other. They are also prevented from prioritising, for example, Netflix over BBC iPlayer, which means that that one piece of data can’t overtake other pieces of data in order to get to its destination more quickly.

But are there exceptions?

There certainly are. When net neutrality was enshrined into EU law last April, it included several exceptions. For example, ISPs are able to manage traffic if they are legally obliged to, so if a court orders that certain content has to be blocked, then that must be acted on. Internet providers can also interfere with the flow of data if it makes the network more secure or if they fear that it may cause congestion at specific times. What they can’t do, however, is slow down Spotify, for instance, while allowing Apple Music to continue unaffected because equivalent categories of traffic – in this case music streaming – must be treated equally.

Does the US have net neutrality laws, too?

In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruled in favour of net neutrality. It changed the classification of a broadband provider from “information provider” to “common carrier” (which means it carries traffic without discrimination and interference) and the new rules treat the internet as a public utility. As in the EU, they prevent ISPs from throttling or blocking content online. But the situation is changing and the FCC is already looking to reverse the Open Internet rules.

What would scrapping net neutrality do?

Scrapping net neutrality would allow network owners to produce slow and fast lanes on the internet. By paying ISPs more, services such as Google, Facebook and Amazon would be able to move around the internet faster than those which pay less or nothing at all.

So why doesn’t the FCC want net neutrality?

Republican Ajit Pai, who was named Chairman of the FCC by President Donald Trump, believes enforcing net neutrality has slowed consumer access to faster broadband connections and that it has reduced investment in network expansion. He is backed by US cable companies who want to be able to grant preferential treatment to content. They say innovation has been stifled and that the amount of money put into broadband has fallen by as much as three per cent. Pai favours “voluntary” compliance with net-neutrality rules, which will state there should be no discrimination, blocking or paid prioritisation. But that wouldn’t prevent ISPs cashing on on paid prioritisation deals. US networks Comcast and Verizon have said they need to charge some companies more to help tackle congested traffic.

What do the supporters of net neutrality say about this?

As you’d expect, they are up in arms, fearing that ISPs will try to interfere in content delivery. A record four million public comments were posted ahead of the passing of the Open Internet and its backers are not going down without a fight. They want the same speeds for all data and they want all legal content treated equally. Certainly, they are opposed to any moves that would allow ISPs to set up fast lanes to give paying content providers better speeds and prioritisation. They argue that rolling back the Open Internet rules impedes innovation and that ISPs rather than users will end up determining which companies win and lose. It’s rather telling that more than 800 internet-based startups signed an open letter against the move.

But what are the big tech companies doing about it?

Some of the internet’s largest companies made 12 July their ‘Day of Action’ protest. Those involved included Amazon, Kickstarter, Reddit, GitHub, Etsy, Mozilla, Netflix BitTorrent and Vimeo together with the American Civil Liberties Union, American Library Association Center for Media Justice, Demand Progress, MoveOn, Greenpeace and Organizing For Action. It’s not surprising to see such opposition given the level of protests against similarly restrictive bills five years ago. Back then, more than 50,000 websites blacked out their homepages.

Will net neutrality win again?

It’s hard to tell because Pai appears determined to see it overturned. In May, the FCC voted two to one in favour of an order that will eliminate net neutrality rules. It has now gone through a period of comment and the final vote. A good number of senators are also against the repealing of net neutrality rules and they have signed an open letter published on Techcrunch. “President Trump’s FCC is threatening to take away your ability to have free and open use of the internet,” they wrote.

What could happen after Brexit?

The plan is that the Great Repeal Bill will repatriate EU law into British law when we exit from the European Union. But that doesn’t prevent laws from being repealed later. Ofcom is a member of the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (Berec) which oversees the net neutrality rules for the EU. It could decide to set out its own guidelines if it ceases to be a member. However, that would mean companies operating in both the EU and UK markets facing different rules, which could prove confusing.

How net neutrality could affect you

If net neutrality is overturned in the US, it could have some wide-ranging long-term consequences for all web users

Extra costs The big internet companies would – reluctantly – pay for access to the “fast lane” but the extra costs involved could well be passed on to consumers. Services such as Netflix may have to spread the burden on customers by increasing subscriptions globally.
Less choice Smaller companies in the ‘slow lane’ may find they attract too few users and so they may not expand to these shores in the way we’d hope. New startups be affected because the cost of providing an optimum service will rise.
Blocked content If one company – let’s choose Spotify as an example – pays an ISP a fortune, then removing restrictions that prevent broadband providers from discriminating could see rivals restricted or even blocked and that would inevitably have a knock-on effect worldwide.
A tiered internet Although changes across the pond won’t water down the EU’s net neutrality laws, it’s still scary to hear suggestions that ISPs may seek to offer basic internet packages limited to certain content, with charges or wider use.

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