Net Neutrality – What does it mean?

Mirkwood Evans Vincent Word Cloud with Internet Neutrality related tags

Net neutrality is the principle that “all data is created equal”, and that there should be no scope for internet service providers to process different sorts of data according to different rules based on (for instance) the amount of bandwidth the application consumes or whether or not the originating content provider has paid extra money for its data to be processed ahead of other data.

However, just to confuse the issue, different interest groups have tried to interpret the concept of net neutrality in a way, which supports their particular point of view. In the US, major internet service providers have argued that they should be able to discriminate on how they handle traffic at busy times to ease congestion……..They argue this approach is “net neutral” because the decision to throttle some traffic rather than other traffic will be based on an application’s consumption of bandwidth rather than who the application provider is. The argument leads of course logically to the proposition that heavy bandwidth application providers would need to pay more to have their data processed. The counter argument runs that being able to discriminate against content based on its payment profile will favour the largest and most wealthy corporates to the detriment of smaller businesses and not for profit content providers, and could ultimately have a chilling effect free speech, the “not for profit” sector, and on start ups, which are the lifeblood of an innovative Internet. So far, the Federal Communications Commission in the US has come out in favour of the Internet being regulated as a public utility, thus enshrining the concept of net neutrality in the sense that no application can be treated differently to any other, but a number of lawsuits have already been lodged by the big ISPs challenging this position.

Meanwhile the debate is being held worldwide. In Europe, the EU member states have backed a deal which allows for a flexible interpretation of net neutrality, which will allow “specialised services” to be delivered at high-speed transmission rates as long as they do not “impede consumer transmission traffic”. It is not at all clear what this will mean in practice. In Hong Kong, the Telecommunications Ordinance provides a framework prohibiting anti-competitive and discriminatory conduct, but there is no out and out restriction on the adoption of additional and transparent charging profiles based on bandwidth use. In the same vein, India has proposed that traffic management must remain “application agnostic” but without clarifying whether or not this leaves the way open for additional charges to be applied or throttling to occur based on bandwidth usage.

Net neutrality will be one of the major international discussions of the coming months and years. It remains to be seen what the real outcomes will be for technology companies in practice on a global basis and who will pay for the increase in bandwidth capacity that the global Internet requires.