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The pros and cons of net neutrality

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

The word net neutrality on an abstract technological background

Over the past few years, the term 'net neutrality' has rarely been out of the headlines, and the pros and cons of net neutrality are worth knowing.

What is net neutrality?

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".

In the US, the situation is a little more complex. Having been established as a term in Tim Wu's 2003 paper 'Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination', it became a topic of hot debate throughout the early 2000s. On 26 February 2015, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted in favour of net neutrality, and this was upheld by the District of Columbia's Court of Appeals in June 2016. Despite this, support for the vote was far from cross-party, and Republicans identified net neutrality as a contentious law they would repeal once in power. Under the leadership of president Donald Trump, the Republicans were in 2017 able to overturn the ruling in a 3-2 vote.

To combat this, California decided to adopt its own legislation requiring net neutrality, and in September 2018 signed this into law. The Department of Justice sued the state as a result, and only dropped the lawsuit with the inauguration of president Joe Biden.

Internet service providers (ISPs) and telecom groups had argued that a state-by-state approach to Internet regulation would be confusing to consumers, but in January 2022 the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the law, and ruled that it cannot be overridden by the FCC.

In a new development in July 2022, Massachusetts senator Ed Markey introduced a new Net Neutrality and Broadband Justice Act, which seeks to classify broadband internet access as a telecommunications service. If passed, this would bring net neutrality back into law.

In the UK, net neutrality is law as a result of the EU having adopted it as such in 2015-16. However, with the passage of the Retained EU Law Bill, the government is seeking to repeal almost 4,000 EU laws that were retained following Brexit, which would include the Open Internet Access Regulations 2016. 

Amidst the legislative back-and-forth, public opinion has been divided on the topic of net neutrality, and there's obviously a range of pros and cons when it comes to this matter.

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The argument for its removal was that it had been a burden on internet providers and stifled innovation. On the other hand, its proponents say that in the absence of net neutrality there is nothing preventing an ISP from hiding content behind paywalls or offering improved bandwidths to websites that can afford to pay more.

Pros of net neutrality

1. Freedom of expression

Net neutrality prevents ISPs from controlling the content their users can and cannot view on the web. This is crucial for journalism, and gives users more choice over where they get their news and entertainment from.

Net neutrality protects a diversity of voices online, enforcing rights to freedom of speech and ensuring that ISPs do not interfere with users’ ability to access a wide range of views. Of course, this is for better and for worse, but proponents argue that the alternative is an unacceptable overreach of free speech by broadband providers, who may have vested interests to bar certain views from their platform.

2. Stimulated 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.

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3. Unfettered access

It is likely that the wealthiest online companies, if pressed, would pay to have their websites available on so-called internet fast lanes.

Net neutrality laws prevent ISPs from charging willing companies to have their users able to connect to their services quicker than others, like industry competitors. Without it, situations could arise where companies like Netflix outbid rivals such as Amazon Prime Video to have its shows delivered to users at higher speeds.

End users also currently enjoy access to vital services such as online banking and email all for free. Net neutrality would protect this as a right, preventing the possibility of ISPs tacking on an additional fee for users wishing to access such services over their network.

Cons of net neutrality

1. 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 spending on capacity, diverting funds away from service innovation.

Service providers maintain that while they’re able to put extra charges on the likes of Google and other major developers of resource-intensive internet platforms, they can 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.

2. 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. A wide range of commercial and business web filters to let users restrict access to certain services or websites on their devices. However, net neutrality opponents argue that younger users will merely use their mobile phones, through which they can access illicit websites without adult supervision.

Providers often argue that they could block these sites at a network-wide level, removing 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 compels ISPs to block sites that do not comply.

The UK government's Online Safety Bill, also sets out plans to require age verification on websites deemed inappropriate for underage users such as porn streaming sites. However, this bill is currently on ice as the government undergoes internal transformation. 

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.

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3. No free Internet access

Opponents of net neutrality contend that more vital services could be made accessible for free if the companies that draw excess bandwidth are charged extra for their heavy use.

Video streaming websites, for example, are among a newer generation of internet services that demand more bandwidth in order to properly deliver their content. Some argue that if it cost an excess fee to access the likes of Netflix and YouTube, services like Wikipedia could be made free for all with the subsequent funds.

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