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Arguments For And Against Net Neutrality

Net neutrality is the idea that all information sent over the cables and connections which make up the internet should be treated equally. Many countries around the world have enacted some form of regulation to protect net neutrality, preventing internet service providers (ISPs) from prioritizing some types of traffic over others and therefore delivering it faster, and stopping them from blocking access to other content.

The idea that the internet should be neutral in this way is not set in stone, however. For example, the United States of America's net neutrality regulations were recently challenged successful in court by Verizon. U.S. legislators have suggested that net neutrality in the US will be re-introduced in another form, but the issue still remains up in the air at the time of writing.

Despite the fact that this is an important issue which could have a big impact on the way the internet works and how ordinary users experience it, there has been little public debate about net neutrality and most people remain ill-informed about the issues involved.

In this article I will present the most common arguments given, both for and against net neutrality.

Arguments Against Net Neutrality

Opponents of net neutrality suggest that allowing internet service providers the power to charge heavy users (such as Netflix, which is responsible for a large part of the total US internet traffic) more is simply fairer – because big companies would be forced to pay for what they use rather than effectively getting a free ride as they do now.

They argue that ending net neutrality regulations could lead to improvements in internet infrastructure – possibly meaning faster connection speeds for everyone – and may also reduce bills for the end user. That is because the ISPs would be able to raise revenue from big corporations like Netflix rather than just from end users, and this money could then be used for re-investments and to compete more with each other on the price offered to regular customers.

Another argument against net neutrality is that it stifles innovation, by preventing the introduction of new services which require faster connection speeds than are currently available. Speed critical services such as medical monitoring over the internet are impaired, whereas without net neutrality they would be able to pay for a faster and better connection.

It is also true that the same companies which act as internet service providers also provide other services along the same infrastructure, such as cable television. Current net neutrality rules in places like the United States allow these companies to create 'fast lanes' to prioritize very profitable cable television broadcasts over internet streaming. A competitive marketplace amongst ISPs would therefore allow internet television to compete on a more even footing against other media services.

Opponents of net neutrality want a free marketplace where competition can drive innovation, rather than an open internet protected by government interference. They suggest that fears over internet censorship are overblown because competition would protect the internet from censorship, as any ISP censoring the internet would simply see their customers switch over to a competitor offering a more complete service.

Arguments For Net Neutrality

The main argument for net neutrality is the idea that the internet should, at its heart, be an open technology. Proponents point to the power of the internet to protect and promote freedom of speech and to give a voice to ordinary people. They worry that allowing ISPs to treat internet communications from one source differently to another source will open the door to the censorship of the internet, and that this will impoverish us all.

Without regulations to protect net neutrality internet service providers may block content from websites which do not pay them the fees they ask for (or just slow it down so much that it is virtually inaccessible), block content from sites which compete with their favoured 'premium customers' who pay the highest fees, or unilaterally block content which they just don't like. Government censorship of the internet is dangerous enough, but to allow this power to private companies could, some say, be even more dangerous.

At an idealogical level, some people also argue that ISPs simply have no rights to control the information transmitted along their cables, only over the cables themselves. An ISP exerting control over the data itself would be like your phone company deciding which of your friends, relatives and colleagues you should use your phone to talk to, and who should have their connection 'downgraded'.

There is also a possibility that ending net neutrality could stifle innovation and competition. This is because fees for faster access for big sites could make it impossible for smaller and newer websites to compete with established players, and could mean that whether a website is successful or not depends more on back-room deal making than on public tastes and preferences. One might compare internet cables to roads – imagine if a company could pay for exclusive access to the fastest roads, forcing others to take the back-roads.

Whilst some opponents of net neutrality suggest that a free market with real competition between ISPs with genuine differences between what they offer the public would lead to greater choice for customers and improve internet services for everyone, there are real worries that infrastructure challenges prevent any significant competition in many areas. This is because in harder to reach locations customers may be able to access only one internet service provider, because there is no commercial gain for new entrants to compete over such a small market. This could lead to a situation where significant numbers of people simply have to put up with the version of the internet their local service provider happens to offer, and could not access the web services they want to use at speeds which make them viable.

Categories: Politics | Internet


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