What is Net Neutrality? Definition and Rulings

Net Neutrality has been a subject of debate recently, and probably people are still debating the new rules that emerged around May 15, 2014. This post explains what is Net Neutrality really about in simple terms, why is it important, pros and cons, how it affects people trying something on the Internet and the new petitions and, the rules and rulings that have been brought in for debate, along with an example or two. I used the word “trying” as it intends to cover end-users, websites, and even Internet-based startups.


What is Net Neutrality – Definition

The original meaning of net neutrality says that all the Internet traffic (data) should be treated as equal and no data packets of a certain origin should be favored over other data traveling on the Internet. In other words, all the websites on the Internet should be working at the same average speed provided by your ISP.

Problems began when some ISPs decided that they should charge extra for websites that want to provide a smoother experience to their subscribers. These charges are then passed on to the end-users by the websites. Then there are free websites who may not be able to pay to the ISPs and therefore will be slower on the Internet.

Another important example is that a well-established e-commerce store will pay the ISP and will load faster while another e-commerce store that sells less may not be able to load that fast. That would create a bias towards the store which loads faster and thereby luring off the customers of the average speed store.

Net Neutrality – What’s Actually Happening?

There have been cases where the ISPs were deliberately slowing up data from popular websites to extract money from those sites. Netflix, for example, is a video streaming site. And it pays a good amount of money to different ISPs so that users can watch the videos without interruptions due to buffering, etc.

Before this year’s debate, there was a lawsuit on Comcast that it was slowing down Netflix to promote its own paid videos. Since local videos on cable are faster than the one streaming from the Internet, most people would browse Comcast’s own library to rent a video rather than checking into Netflix or similar sites.

According to Tech Radar,

“ISPs are receiving money from their subscribers to access the internet, including Netflix. Now they’re receiving money from Netflix to access those same customers.”

If you read the above carefully, you will automatically understand that Netflix will pass on those extra charges for smooth viewing (more bandwidth), to its customers.

Who Suffers?

Among the first to suffer, are the end users, of course. Their subscription charges increase, so they have to pay more to get the same content they used to get earlier at lower rates.

This type of paid streaming is especially harmful to websites that are still struggling to survive. The newcomers and startups will find it hard to find a place among the already existing competition. Just because they cannot afford to pay extra, their sites will be slow. And in case they pay up and pass on the charges to customers (end users), their turnover is affected. Suppose someone has a good idea of an alternative to Facebook. And they implement it free of cost. Since Facebook is able to pay, it gets better speed while the startup suffers because it cannot pay the ISPs.

Net Neutrality rulings

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) came up with three rules that apply to all the ISPs.

The first rule is about transparency. All ISPs will have to maintain records and publish a performance report every few months. This performance report will have all information about their traffic, any irregularities on behalf of ISPs or underlying cable companies used by ISP to communicate data, and blocking of any content or charging any website for faster bandwidth.

The second rule is about not blocking conditions unlawfully. It may be said that a particular website is blocked upon request from the government, but that too will be under public scrutiny as to why the need came up to block the site. Another aspect is taking money from a site to block its competitors or the ISP’s own competitors.

The third rule is a little abstract as its meaning cannot be decoded properly. It says ISPs cannot slow down the Internet speed if a user is paying for higher speeds. Sometimes, some ISPs slow down websites as they wish to maintain balance among the different bandwidths they use for communications (data traveling). And this is said to “commercially unreasonable”. It is not clear as to how many falls in the speed of Internet would be ‘commercially unreasonable’ and hence should provide equal importance to all types of Internet packages. ISPs have different packages offering different speeds. It will not be in compliance with the rule if the ISP slows down lower package holders to provide better speed to higher speed package holders.

Future of Net Neutrality

The Internet activists and free speech supporters are up in arms against the FCC and ISPs. They want Net Neutrality to be maintained at all costs. They believe the above rules can easily be breached and transparency won’t be of much help in providing a proper service. A good section of these activists wants Internet to be classified as “public utility” so that the government may use Municipal wireless or its own broadband networks. The use of broadband depends mostly on cable lines and also on wireless. The Municipal wireless is already there as an alternative to costly ISPs. Once the Internet is classified as a public utility, there is less chance that the ISPs can do to tamper with the speeds as people can switch to government broadband.

UPDATE: In Dec 2017, the US FCC decided to kill Net Neytrality. Let us see what the future holds now…

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Arun Kumar is a Microsoft MVP alumnus, obsessed with technology, especially the Internet. He deals with the multimedia content needs of training and corporate houses. Follow him on Twitter @PowercutIN