I’m currently working through the Web Science course on FutureLearn, written by researchers from the University of Southampton’s Web Science Centre. One of the issues we’re looking at is net neutrality, which I’d heard of in passing before but never really got to grips with. I’ve been doing some reading to try to get my head around it, and here’s what I’ve learnt so far. I haven’t yet quite worked out where I stand on the issues.

What is net neutrality?

The basic principle of net neutrality is that everyone who uses the web should have equal access to everything on it. The company that provides our access to the internet shouldn’t be able to decide what we can access, or how well/quickly we can access individual sites or services. To that end, every bit of data travelling around the web is equal and no traffic should take priority.

The principle surfaces and manifests through several different current issues. Two that are mentioned in the course are (1) ISPs wanting to create a ‘fast lane’ and (2) companies like Facebook providing a free but limited version of the web to areas without access (eg rural Africa).

Issue 1: ISPs wanting to create a ‘fast lane’

This primarily relates to domestic internet provision in developed countries where access to the web is open (eg UK, Europe, USA).

ISPs complain that they pay for investment in infrastructure (getting homes connected and improving their connection speed) and content providers like Netflix, Amazon and Facebook then use that infrastructure and are extremely profitable. ISPs want content providers to contribute to the costs, so they’ve wanted to create a ‘fast lane’. Content providers could choose to pay money to the ISPs to have data going to/from their site travel in the ‘fast lane’. ISP customers at home who access fast lane sites would find those sites work reliably and quickly.

ISPs argue that this is necessary because of the growth of high-traffic services like video streaming (in the US, people watching Netflix accounts for 37% of web traffic during peak evening hours). They say Netflix (and similar) should chip in for the infrastructure that carries their service. Their argument is effectively that they built a road and now someone’s set up a service station on it and is making lots of money. They want a cut of the service station’s profits.

Content providers are opposed to this. Let’s face it – primarily because they are also private companies with a profit motive and the ISPs want to charge them money.

More interestingly, most web evangelists (eg Tim Berners Lee) are also opposed, saying that a fast lane would stifle innovation and competition. Start-ups won’t be able to afford the fast lane fees that ISPs charge so will be in the slow lane, and can never hope to compete with the big companies. A small start-up streaming video service wouldn’t be able to take on Netflix because customers wouldn’t see a good service from it.

They also argue that ISPs shouldn’t have the power to discourage their customers from accessing specific sites and services by providing a slower connection to it. Again, they say it’s unfair to smaller content providers as they’re not competing on a level playing field. It would be like phone companies providing a better phone line to some companies than others – if you call Company A you get a crisp clear line, if you call Company B you get a crackly line and are more likely to get cut off. We wouldn’t stand for that with phone lines, and the internet should be the same as it’s now essentially a utility.

In the US, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has put a regulatory framework in place that prevents the creation of fast lanes so, as it stands, ISPs can’t move forward with their plans. Similar laws have been passed by the EU Parliament, and some loopholes that may have allowed fast lanes were tightened in summer 2016. The UK doesn’t have specific laws on this, and as and when Brexit goes ahead won’t be obliged to implement the EU laws. ISPs say that such laws will restrict their profitability and may mean a future lack of investment in internet infrastructure.

Issue 2: Private companies providing a limited free internet service to developing countries

There are parts of the world – eg sub-Saharan Africa – where many communities have no internet access; the infrastructure simply isn’t there. Various private companies and non-profit organisations have thought about how to offer an internet service in these areas. One example is Internet.org, run by a partnership between Facebook and six technology companies (Samsung, Ericsson, MediaTek, Opera Software, Nokia and Qualcomm). Internet.org describes itself as follows:

“Internet.org is a Facebook-led initiative bringing together technology leaders, nonprofits and local communities to connect the two thirds of the world that don’t have internet access. “

Internet.org was launched by Mark Zuckerberg who proclaimed that internet access is a human right. It provides access via its Facebook Free Basics service to a limited number of websites for free – websites that Internet.org designate ‘zero rated’. These are low-data sites that load quickly on 2G and 3G connections.

However, its rollout has faced controversy. Opponents argue that it violates net neutrality by creating a two-tier system – a limited set of sites for free and the full web for people who can afford to pay. Apparently there are only around 100 sites on Facebook Free Basics – just 0.02% of the world’s websites. Many organisations signed an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg objecting to Internet.org.

The argument from the company is that it’s better for people to have a basic free service than no service at all (given that it’s not feasible to give them everything for free). Mark Zuckerberg has said in a statement that:

“Arguments about net neutrality shouldn’t be used to prevent the most disadvantaged people in society from gaining access or to deprive people of opportunity.”

Some critics go further though, saying that Internet.org is in fact nothing more than a Facebook strategy to get itself more users. You have to sign up for Facebook to use the service and none of Facebook’s competitor social media sites are available on it.

In February 2016, Indian regulators banned Facebook Free Basics from being offered in the country, to support net neutrality. The Guardian have published an in-depth article on Facebook Free Basics and India.


Image credit: Earth in Space 1903 (unknown illustrater, The Booklovers Magazine, Public Domain)