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What is net neutrality? The open internet explained

If you’ve been on the Internet for a while, you’ve probably come across the term “net neutrality” by now. The concept has been a subject of debate amongst lawmakers across the world over the past decade, but what is it all about? 

Read on to learn all about net neutrality, including what it is, the loudest arguments for and against it and, most importantly, what the stance is in the UK right now? 

What is net neutrality? 

Net neutrality is the idea that all users on the Internet, from individuals to mega-corporations, deserve equal access to the same network performance and content without having to pay more for the privilege. 

That includes both unfettered data speeds and any legal content you might want to access. 

“Net neutrality, also known as ‘open internet’, is the principle that you control what you see and do online, not the broadband provider that connects you to the internet”, reads Ofcom’s definition of the term. 

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Those for net neutrality want the Internet to be seen legally as a utility, like water or electricity. They consider the web a service that every citizen has a right to and something that shouldn’t be modified or restricted by those providing it. 

Those against net neutrality insist that companies that require and use higher bandwidths, like Google or Disney Plus, should be charged for the additional demand they put on their Internet Service Provider’s (ISP) infrastructure. 

The argument for net neutrality 

There are sound arguments both for and against net neutrality. Those for net neutrality include Internet content providers and consumer advocates, while ISPs and economists tend to sit on the other side of the fence. 

On the side for net neutrality is the concept that the Internet was built on the idea of free and equal distribution of knowledge and that any attempt to control or limit your service would contradict that. 

Losing net neutrality would give ISP’s the power to pick and choose which websites and corporations get access to the best performance. They’d even be able to throttle the performance of specific sites based on payments made by direct rivals, manipulating traffic in a certain direction. 

Prioritising and blocking websites and content based on how much one can pay would generally favour the rich and powerful, making net neutrality an obvious anti-competition issue and leaving smaller start-ups with little space to get their foot in the door. 

The argument against net neutrality

There’s also a valid argument to be made on the side against net neutrality, both for ISPs and in the case of everyday consumers. 

The argument against net neutrality is that those who get the most benefit and financial gain out of the Internet, such as Meta or Netflix, should be required to pay more than us regular users for the privilege. 

These corporations hog a substantial amount of an ISP’s bandwidth, so the argument made is that they should be charged more for the additional demand they put on that provider’s infrastructure. 

The money they pay could then go toward improving Internet services for the rest of us (though that’d be in the hands of the ISP itself). 

Net neutrality in the UK 

Currently, in the UK, ISPs are required by law to follow specific rules to ensure they treat all Internet traffic on their networks equally and refrain from favouriting specific websites or services. 

The following rules are enforced by Ofcom

  • Your provider must not block access to, slow down (‘throttle’), or discriminate in other ways between internet traffic on its network, unless it is necessary to do so for legal, security or emergency reasons.
  • Your provider must not manage its internet traffic to gain a commercial advantage – for example, it must not redirect you away from a website, to one it’s affiliated with, or slow down the services of rival organisations.
  • Your provider may take reasonable measures to manage its internet traffic, so that its network runs smoothly. But these measures should not be taken for longer than necessary. Your provider must be absolutely clear about its traffic management policy and practices.

That said, every ISP will have its own approach to net neutrality, which it is legally required to expand upon in your contract.

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