The pros and cons of net neutrality

Still on the fence about net neutrality? Here's both sides of the argument

The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) sent the internet into panic mode in July 2018 when it scrapped regulations for net neutrality. The law was put into place in 2015, under the Obama administration, but the FCC let them expire just three years later.

The argument for its removal was that net neutrality stifled innovation and hampered internet providers. The counter-argument says that without it there's nothing to stop an ISP offering greater bandwidths to websites that can afford to pay extra or hide premium content behind paywalls.

There are arguments for and against it, but the basic concept of net neutrality is that all traffic should be treated fairly, without penalising or prioritising traffic from a domain name, service provider or publisher. Net neutrality protections are already enshrined in European law, with EU directives ruling that "providers of [internet] services should treat all traffic equally, without discrimination, restriction or interference".

This is no longer the case in the US, where net neutrality campaigners fear that without legislation to keep them in check, companies will use their stranglehold on the deployment of broadband to boost the popularity and availability of the other services they own at the expense of smaller firms.

However, who is right and wrong in the case for net neutrality is more complex than it seems, so we've set out the pros and cons of net neutrality to help you pick your side of the debate.

Pros

Freedom of expression

As long as it's legal, any blog or website or news service is available online under the concept of net neutrality. Otherwise, internet service providers could in theory block access to content they don't want you to see, like a rival video streaming site or another site that competes with their own interests, or even content they deem as unsuitable. Net neutrality lets all the many, diverse people in the world have a voice online, for better or worse.

Promotes innovation and competition

An open internet ensures that larger companies don't have yet another advantage over a tiny startup. It's a level playing field on the internet, where everything is delivered as fast as possible to the end user.

Unfettered access

Google can't pay for faster access to their websites, and a tiny video streaming service should in theory be as speedy and glitch-free as Netflix. Net neutrality squashes the potential for internet fast lanes, where internet service providers can charge content creators for enough bandwidth to deliver their service properly.

It also prevents the possibility of providers charging end users an extra fee to access vital services, like online banking or email, or entertainment platforms like gaming networks (or of the owners of these services from passing their costs onto end users).

Cons

Less network innovation

The rise of more sophisticated internet services, particularly video content, has created greater demand on bandwidth. This, according to many providers, has forced the need for greater spend on capacity, diverting funds away from service innovation.

Services providers maintain that if they were able to charge the likes of Google and other major developers of resource-intensive internet platforms, they could divert these funds into upgrading networks and extending service availability.

However, the FCC’s own industry-funded research has shown that although investment fell by 2% in 2015 and 3% in 2016 while under net neutrality rules, many of the largest ISPs increased innovation spending.

Porn and objectionable content thrives

Opponents of net neutrality have also argued that the rules make it easier for underage users to access legal, but age-sensitive pornography. While many software providers offer built-in tools for restricting access to certain services or websites, net neutrality opponents argue these are ineffective as many younger users will simply turn to their mobile devices, which they can use without adult supervision.

Providers argue that if they were able to block these sites at a network-wide level, this would remove the problem at its source. This is something that exists under the UK’s Digital Economy Act, which demands that websites host identity verifications when users access their content, and forces ISPs to block sites that do not comply.

There’s also an argument that the removal of net neutrality laws would allow ISPs to crack down on peer-to-peer file-sharing websites, which are a major source of illegal content and online piracy.

No free internet access

Advocates for less oversight of internet service providers say that allowing them to charge for access to some content would lead to free access to certain sites. For example, they argue that if internet service providers charged bandwidth-hungry companies like Netflix more for using their infrastructure, they would be able offer access to sites like Wikipedia or Facebook for free - even if you had no internet contract.

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