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Explaining net neutrality

Ending net neutrality in the US is a controversial topic at the moment, with many claiming that it will destroy freedom of speech and result in you and me, the consumer, paying more – but it is not as black and white as many would have you think.

A simple definition of net neutrality is that ISPs (Internet Service Providers) must give equal access to all content on the internet, without regard to the source. This means that ISPs such as BT internet and TalkTalk cannot favour content from one source over another; that is to say provide the favoured content with a faster connection and a quicker download with the result that other, less-favoured content, would be pushed back and load more slowly.

Without net neutrality, big companies with a great deal of money could pay ISPs to prioritise their content over that of their competitors. Many believe that this would reduce competition and lead to a few dominant companies controlling the internet. For example, in the video streaming industry, a company such as Netflix could afford to pay for prioritisation; as a result their videos would load faster and with better quality, leaving smaller companies (who could not afford to pay for prioritisation) with videos of lower resolution or which buffer slowly. Those smaller companies would then be at risk of being put out of business if too many consumers chose to transfer to the dominant players able to offer a better service.

However, there is an alternative view which is that because big companies use so much broadband they should be forced to pay more. This money could then be used to improve the ISPs infrastructure and increase internet speeds for everyone.

It is true that many people fear that, without net neutrality, ISPs will charge us more in order to use the internet at peak times or charge video streaming companies, and hence their customers, to keep their connection speeds high. However, I do not believe this is necessarily the case. Inevitably the abolition of net neutrality will enable ISPs to charge the likes of Netflix to maintain their streaming speeds (as Comcast (the largest ISP in the US) did in 2014[^1]) but this could also mean the ISPs, as they become more successful, can be more generous on their terms to consumers. Furthermore, different ISPs might begin to offer more diverse services enabling you and me, the consumer, to have a more personal choice.

In this regard it is important to remember that, whilst for streaming it is imperative for all information to arrive in the correct order to avoid playback issues such as stutters and distortions, there is no such imperative for all the information in an email to arrive at the same time and in the same order. So surely it makes sense to have some form of prioritisation.

Of course, there will always be cynics: cynics of the government who distrust the power net neutrality legislation gives intelligence agencies to monitor internet usage and invade privacy under the pretense of checking for wrongdoing by ISPs; cynics of ISPs who fear they will block all content they disagree with and threaten our freedom of speech Рbut surely as long as the consumer can vote with their feet and switch to another ISP (or ultimately get the regulators involved) that fear is largely unfounded.

The end of net neutrality need not be a problem: the growth and success of the internet up until 2015 is testament to the fact that government control is not necessary. We should have faith that the consumer has the power to use the ISP that gives us the service we want and thereby keep the ISPs in check ourselves. All eyes are now on the US to see how successful the abolition of net neutrality will be, inevitably the result will not only affect us in the UK but how everyone will use the internet in the future.