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What you need to know about net neutrality

A short, simple explainer on something that could change how you use the internet forever

On Wednesday, the U.S saw some of the world’s biggest tech companies rallying together to protest the U.S Federal Communications Commission's proposed scrapping of the open Internet protections set in place in 2015 by the Obama administration. These changes could threaten net neutrality, and Netflix, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and 80,000 other websites and organisations joined together for a “day of action” to protest the potential changes. If you went on any of these websites yesterday, you were likely to see banners, blog posts, and statements in support of net neutrality. The Electronic Frontier Foundation had a notice that said the site was “blocked” unless you paid for premium access. That, of course, doesn’t mean the fight is over. But what does it all mean? Why does it matter? And will it ever affect us in the UK?

What is net neutrality?

Net neutrality is a term coined in 2003 that essentially means Internet providers can’t dictate what you access online. They can’t prioritise some sources over others, cannot charge a fee for access to select services, and can’t block lawful content. Our Internet use is mostly unrestricted.

What would happen if we lost it?

Essentially it would mean that Internet providers could pick and choose what content they wanted to provide to different payment tiers, and some of that would depend on their own affiliations. It’s the difference between an open, free Internet and a restricted one dictated by capitalism and self-interest. Without net neutrality our Internet experience would be tightly controlled and consumers and content providers would “both exist to enrich ISPs”. It would vastly alter the way that we receive information on the Internet – for the worse.

“Internet service providers could create special fast lanes for content providers willing to pay more," said Corey Price, vice president of PornHub, to the BBC. Pornhub, one of the most visited sites in the world, is one of 80,000 sites taking a stand. “That means slow streaming, which, especially in regards to online porn, is quite problematic as you can imagine.”

What can I do?

If you’re in the U.S, Wired have put together a comprehensive list of ways you can fight the proposed rollbacks. They include writing to the FCC, contacting your representatives, and staying informed. If you live in the UK or elsewhere, you can simply do all you can to be vocal and supportive from a distance.

Will any changes affect the UK?

Currently, we have a net neutrality principle due to the EU’s Regulation on Open Internet Access – although the UK did have a voluntary system in place before this. Till Sommer, from the UK’s Internet Service Providers Association, told Sky News that the debate is currently raging in the US rather than here is because “we have strong standards backed up by regulations and we have a highly competitive broadband market that allows consumers to switch and choose the provider that best meets their needs”.

But should we be worried?

Possibly. Ed Johnson-Williams, a campaigner at Open Rights Group, told Sky News that “the Government plans to convert EU net neutrality rules along with much of the rest of EU law into British law using the Great Repeal Bill.” Brexit, however, will naturally complicate everything. And despite our ISP market being better generally than the US, Johnson-Williams says that “we have lots of companies that sell both internet access and online content like TV shows and films” this means that they “have an incentive to prioritise their own content as it travels to customers through the internet connections that they control”.

So: we shouldn’t necessarily be worried, but we need to stay alert and informed. As usual, then.