Imagine getting the following message on your phone from your network provider.
We’re living in a world where most of us take the internet for granted. The first question we ask when we enter our friends’ houses is ‘whats the wifi password?’. We’ve all done it. We’ve also sat in cafes and been infuriated when we are told that the webpage we just searched for have been BLOCKED. We want things our way and so far we’ve been extremely fortunate to have it all. In the UK, there are very few places that do not have internet. I mean even trains and taxis have wifi nowadays. Most of the country is covered by some data plan or other. But across the pond is another story.
Net Neutrality is a phrase, that recently, many of us may have been seeing online. It is the principle that all data providers must treat all data on the internet as the same without discriminating or charging differently for different users, content, websites, platforms, applications, or methods of communication. I.e. Internet providers are not allowed to block or slow down particular sites just because they want to. Its to stop us being controlled by any government or company. The idea being that it protects our freedom of speech. This issue is about censorship as much as it is about the inconvenience of being able to access certain websites.
The term Net Neutrality was coined in 2003 after a internet service provider was found to be slowing down connections for peer-to-peer file sharing. The provider Comcast didn’t stop the throttling of those uploads until the Federal Communications Commission (a USA government body to regular internet, radio, tv, satellite and cable) made them.
Internet has become a part of life, which is why until now it has been regulated and companies that provide it are controlled so they can’t exploit us. This is why we aren’t paying ridiculous amounts of money to access the internet in the backcountry compared to in London. Broadband prices throughout the country are roughly the same.
A few days ago, the FCC decided to repeal net neutrality. i.e. Give companies the ability to slow down and even block certain people from accessing particular content. The reason some are for this, is for monetary benefits. Not for its users mainly for the companies. Companies will be able to charge their users based on their usage. You’ll only have a certain amount of data for online browsing, a certain limit on video downloads, a limit on WhatsApp messaging. Every aspect of our internet browsing can be controlled. This means we may have data left but are unable to access many sites. For some this may just seem like a slight annoyance. But in reality its a accessibility and potentially a dangerous thing. There are many people from disabled communities and LGBT+ communities who are isolated from the wider world. They may not be able to access forums and particular sites if it costs more.
Parents don’t always support their children. The internet becomes a saviour for those people. To give providers the ability to charge, means parents then have control over what their children, or people living in their house have access to online. Surely this sort of controlling behaviour is the start of a society that will fail eventually. Though it does mean that you can customise how you use your internet, it doesn’t allow for any changes in your life. Think about how often your own internet habits change from month to month. During exam and deadline season you’ll be downloading every PDF you possibly can and during the summer months probably Netflix-ing for hours on end. How we use the internet varies and it should be up to us to decide how we spend it.
There would be outrage if our employers suddenly decided to pay us in vouchers so we could only buy from certain supermarkets or buy certain products. The new proposed data plans in the US are the same. The ability for internet providers to block content could mean a victory for a particular governments. We would literally not be able to access any other points of view, or websites.
But the point that everyone seems to be missing with the Net Neutrality discussion is that in order for the internet services to slow down or limit our access to particular sites, they need to be reading and accessing everything we are doing. Yup. They’ll have to be reading and seeing EVERYTHING we’re doing on the internet. We can barely deal with Outlook taking meeting and bookings from our emails and inserting them into our calendar. The issue isn’t just that we won’t be able to access certain sites, but that the smaller, non-mainstream sites won’t be able to pay to be part of those basic packages. This means forums, our own websites and other niche websites will be in accessible to majority of people.
We’re lucky in the UK that it hasn’t hit us yet. But what’s to say, things that catch on in the States seem to find their way to the UK pretty soon.