You may have heard of something called “net neutrality”, which is a relatively old concept but not one that is prominently discussed in the British media. The fundamental principle behind net neutrality is that all data on the internet is treated equally – that is, access to any given website or web service is not restricted in any way by third parties. A good example is video streaming from services like LoveFilm (now called Amazon Prime Video) or Netflix. Net neutrality would dictate that your ISP can’t restrit your access to either of these services – you are free to use whichever one you want. However, there is a concern that without a formal agreement to maintain net neutrality, ISPs will start to restrict bandwidth to particular services, requiring you to use their chosen ‘partner’ for streaming video in this case.
Now so far all of this sounds annoying but relatively harmless. However, the argument extends much further than this. What happens if your ISP signs up to an agreement with the government to restrict access to content provided by political rivals? Could innovative startup companies find themselves priced themselves out of the internet by larger rivals who pay for exclusive access rights? While these may seem like distant fears right now, the internet is evolving at such a pace that game-changing trends can be witnessed over a matter of weeks and months, rather than years.
Take a look at this recent article on Net Neutrality – the author argues that the internet has become so tightly integrated with society that it is in essence a utility, much like water or electricity. While we may not be quite there yet, it’s only a matter of time before regular access to the internet becomes a requirement for modern living. With more and more services becoming accessible online, like banking, car tax renewal, paying bills and even conveyancing, many services are withdrawing from the high street and reducing in number to match the reduced demand for “bricks and mortar” locations. This makes sense of course, but at the same time we may be pushing those without regular internet access further and further to the fringes of society.
This is where the net neutrality argument moves from a theoretical discussion about competition and freedom, to a simple matter of human rights. Supporters of net neutrality argue that the internet is so fundamental to modern society that we simply cannot risk having people’s access to it determined and controlled by a handful of big ISPs. For this reason, the recent deal between America’s largest ISP and video streaming service Netflix has hit the headlines, and signals to many the beginning of the end of net neutrality. In a nutshell, Comcast is alleged to have been artificially throttling traffic from Netflix in order to make Netflix pay for faster speeds via direct access into the Comcast broadband network – and Netflix has finally thrown in the towel and paid up.
Does this deal really signal the end of net neutrality? It’s a complex argument, and it’s difficult to say for sure what’s going to happen, but it’s clear that whatever the outcome you can be certain the effects will ripple across to the UK soon enough. Some say the fight is over, others say the war has only just begun – either way, tough decisions are going to have to be made soon.