Net Neutrality: What It Is and Why It Matters

edited August 2023 in PC Tech

Net neutrality is a concept that sits at the heart of the Internet and is best defined as a network design principle. The idea is that a maximally useful public information network aspires to treat all content, sites, and platforms equally. This allows the network to carry every form of information and support every kind of content and application. But what does that mean for the average internet user? This article will delve into the net neutrality definition: what it means for users and how the concept has evolved over time.

What is net neutrality?

Net neutrality is the principle that the company that connects you to the internet should not get to control what you do on the internet. In other words, internet service providers (ISPs) should be required to enable access to every kind of content on the internet at equal speeds and for equal costs. Examples of potential problems that violate the net neutrality principle include the following:

  • Blocking. Carriers have the ability to block access to specific platforms and content. 
  • Termination monopoly pricing. This involves the charging of termination fees to providers who wish to get access to the user. 
  • Content access moderation. Where carriers offer exclusive, preferential treatment to one content provider over others. 
  • Transparency failures. Where carriers fail to tell customers and application developers about the services they offer, such as estimated bandwidth, latency, etc.

One of the biggest concerns is that ISPs might favor their own services. For example, AT&T previously owned Time Warner and HBO Max. In theory, AT&T could have silently throttled speed to competing streaming platforms like YouTube and Netflix, thereby destroying competition.

A useful way to understand net neutrality is to look at other networks, like the electric grid, which are implicitly built on a neutrality theory. The general purpose and neutral nature of the electric grid is one of the things that make it extremely useful. The electric grid does not care if you plug in a toaster, an iron, or a computer. Consequently, it has survived and supported giant waves of innovation in the appliance market. The electric grid that worked for the radios of the 1930s also works for the video streaming services of the 2000s. In this way, the electric grid is a model of a neutral, innovation-driving network.

The term net neutrality has a lot in common with other old ideas. The concept of a “common carrier,” dating from 16th century English common law, captures many similar concepts. A common carrier, in its original meaning, is a private entity that performs a public function (the law was first developed around port authorities).

From an economic perspective, the theory behind the network neutrality principle is that a neutral network should be expected to deliver the maximum benefit possible to a country and the world economically by serving as an innovation platform and by facilitating socially the widest variety of interactions between people. The internet is not perfect, but it aspires for neutrality in its original design. Its decentralized and mostly neutral nature may account for its success as an economic engine and a source of folk culture.

Evolution of net neutrality

The fight for strong net neutrality rules has been ongoing for decades. Here are some key milestones in net neutrality history:

1990s. Concerns started to arise about possible threats to the end-to-end nature of the internet. A major concern at the time was that the vertical integration of cable firms with ISPs would prove a threat to the end-to-end design of the internet.

2002. A paper published by Tim Wu argued that a discrimination rule was the best way to protect a neutral network. The alternative would have been “open access” remedies, in which consumers are allowed their choice of ISPs.

2005. The FCC took steps supporting net neutrality, prohibiting ISPs from blocking content or preventing users from connecting to the internet with their chosen device.

2008. The FCC ordered Comcast to stop slowing down BitTorrent connections but was later blocked by a federal court. Comcast said it has the right to set connection speeds.

2010. The FCC approved the Open Internet Order, creating two classes of internet access: one for fixed-line providers and another for wireless carriers.

2014. A court ruled that the FCC is not entitled to impose net neutrality rules on services that are not common carriers. Also, the FCC proposed introducing net neutrality rules calling for reclassifying broadband as a Title II telecommunications service, and this received a record-breaking 4 million public comments.

2015. The FCC issued a new Open Internet Order, reclassifying ISPs as Title II services and giving them clear authority to enforce net neutrality. The rules prohibited ISPs from deliberately changing their network speeds to or from specific websites based on demand or preferences.

2017. FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai rolled back the Open Internet Order.

2019. A federal appeals court ruled that the FCC can reclassify ISPs as Title I or II and cannot block state-level or local-level net neutrality enforcement.

What does it mean for me?

In countries where official censorship is dominant, net neutrality is not a hot topic simply because internet users are not highly sensitive about the potential for censorship by private companies; they already have to face government censorship in the first place.

Nonetheless, as internet penetration worldwide has grown and online spaces have become central to a broad array of types of communications and exchanges, understanding how this concept is respected in various countries is very important. Research on the net neutrality definition and on how net neutrality–related legislation is formed and enforced is required. Such research would enable civil society groups to understand the implications for citizens and internet users, empowering them to participate in policy discussions and decision-making processes that shape internet regulation.

Future of net neutrality

The final purpose of regulation should be to ensure a free internet and the wellbeing of users, content platforms, and service providers. So what is the current state of affairs and how are they trending?

Researchers have tested data throttling before and after net neutrality, and the results are surprising. It appears that ISPs do throttle services, but they were already doing so before the repeal of net neutrality rules. In other words, the repeal of net neutrality had little to no impact on throttling.

According to the data, the internet that net neutrality advocates fought for when they were campaigning to keep net neutrality in 2017 was no different than the internet without those regulations.

Furthermore, ISPs currently offer a broad range of tiered service plans with different pricing models. The type of connection, the maximum speed, data limits, and even specially priced access to specific services (such as messaging platforms) all vary across the different plans, and in general, free speech and overall internet access is thriving, at least in the United States. 

 *The opinions reflected in this article are the sole opinions of the author and do not reflect any official positions or claims by Acer Inc.

About Ashley Buckwell: Ashley is a technology writer who is interested in computers and software development. He is also a fintech researcher and is fascinated with emerging trends in DeFi, blockchain, and bitcoin. He has been writing, editing, and creating content for the ESL industry in Asia for eight years, with a special focus on interactive, digital learning.

Ashley is a technology writer who is interested in computers and software development. He is also a fintech researcher and is fascinated with emerging trends in DeFi, blockchain, and bitcoin. He has been writing, editing, and creating content for the ESL industry in Asia for eight years, with a special focus on interactive, digital learning.


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