If you follow technological news at all, chances are you have heard or read these four words at least once over the past few days: net neutrality is dead. The odds are also high that you have no idea what those words actually mean, other than the fact that they sound somewhat ominous.
The concept of net neutrality is actually quite simple. The idea is that all data on the Internet should be treated equally by service providers, with no preferential treatment given to certain users, platforms or formats. This has been one of the central tenants of the Internet since its inception, and has played a large part in making the Internet such an excitingly public and amorphous place.
And now it’s dead. Well, at least in the United States. This is because a federal appeals court recently ruled that the American Federal Communications Commission has no right to force Internet service providers to uphold net neutrality, making it legal for big ISPs like Verizon and Time-Warner to provide more or less bandwidth to specific data as they see fit. These companies claim that this will allow them to better serve their customer base, as it will allow them to speed up data coming from the websites their users use the most.
However, ISPs fail to mention the darker side to the fall of net neutrality. Now that all Internet users are not legally entitled to the same level of service, ISPs can begin charging content providers more money if they want their data to be delivered faster.
This is bad in two ways. The most obvious problem with this system is that it favours content providers with more money — the more a company can pay, the faster their data will get to their customers. This automatically puts smaller websites at a massive disadvantage, imposing a plutocracy on what was intended to be a free and open system.
The second, more insidious downside to the fall of net neutrality is that ISPs will be able to exploit this system for their own benefit. Does Comcast want their own video streaming service to compete with Netflix? Then all they have to do is jack up the price Netflix has to pay to send data, which would force Netflix to raise its subscription fee. If you think this sounds like digital extortion, you would be right.
But how will this affect Canadians? Net neutrality remains legally protected in our country and has a healthy amount of support in the federal government, but this doesn’t mean that it isn’t under threat. Canada’s major Internet providers have vocally opposed net neutrality, with a spokesperson from Bell stating, “Our position on network diversity and neutrality is that it should be determined by market forces, not regulation.” Bell and Rogers have also both been recently caught throttling the bandwidth of certain Internet services, but have since promised to cease this activity.
If we want the Internet to remain the open, liberated platform we have grown accustomed to, we must fight for the survival of net neutrality. Nobody wants to live in a future where the Internet is sold to consumers like TV is today, with access to certain websites gated by fees and extra charges imposed by ISPs. With careful monitoring and regulation of these companies’ behaviours, this is a future we can still avoid.