The pros and cons of net neutrality

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

Net neutrality on an abstract tech background

 Net neutrality is rarely out of the headlines. In February 2021, California was awarded the right to enforce its own law regarding the issue when a federal judge denied a motion brought by four telecom and broadband industry groups.

The telecoms firms had argued that a “state-by-state approach to Internet regulation” would be confusing to consumers as well as make network investments more difficult.

This is not the first time that net neutrality laws sparked considerable confusion and, in order to fully understand the significance of this ruling, it’s essential to explain how the law first came to effect.

On 26 February 2015, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted in favour of net neutrality and this decision was upheld by the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in June 2016. However, the law had one massive flaw that was overlooked: a short expiry date. This made it easy for it to be overturned just two years later, under net neutrality opponent President Donald Trump.

In response, the state of California adopted their own law requiring net neutrality and the decision was opposed by the US Justice Department, which only withdrew its legal challenge to the California law after president Joe Biden, a Democrat and proponent of the law, took office.

Net neutrality has divided public opinion for years, with an abundance of pros and cons. 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 from offering greater bandwidths to websites that can afford to pay extra or hide premium content behind paywalls.

However, 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.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) logo on a building

Pros of net neutrality

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 of net neutrality

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.

Two children using a computer with the older one cover the eyes of the younger one with an expression of shock

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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