Hi, I'm Ben Hazell. I used to blog here about the media, but now I work there I don't write here anymore.
I'm the Web Publishing Editor at - I find better ways to tell stories, developing tools, training and practice for journalists.

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Rarely updated now, used during Journalism MA at the University of Sheffield.

Network Neutrality

Friday, 7 December 2007
Network neutrality is the principal that every piece of data sent over the internet should be treated equally, regardless of content or author. This neutrality is a wonderful thing as it provides equal opportunity to home bloggers and major corporate sites. It's a system of democratic expression, and it's what allows such a vast range of voices to be heard online.

This could change. In the US, those who own the wires want to control what is sent down them.

This might seem like fair capitalist enterprise. However, many would argue that it's dangerous. The communications wiring of a nation is such basic infrastructure that allowing it to be controlled and exploited by large companies risks stifling competition and creating content monopolies.

The Internet has never been truly neutral. Service providers prioritise some types of information over others. File sharing is often restricted to prevent it slowing other people’s connections, while online games are allowed higher speeds to ensure smoothness. This can be a good thing as it lets internet providers ensure a smooth connection for applications that need it most.

These variable restrictions presently only control types of data though, not the data contents. The fear is that corporations want to charge to deliver content by certain authors faster than others. For example, video from a major company might stream much faster than that uploaded by a friend, because the company can pay for prefered treatment.

Certain telecoms companies in the US, including AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner, have been attempting to change the law and gain far greater control over the content they deliver over the internet. Groups that pay up would have their content delivered much faster than those who don't or cannot. The fear is that this will create a two-tier internet, with large corporations paying for preferred delivery and cutting out smaller independent ventures. This in turn may cause a pay-per-view internet where websites have to charge users in order to pay the telecoms companies for letting you see the site. There is even the risk that they could decide not to deliver some content at all, effectively censoring for capitalist motives. Some see this as a danger to free online democratic expression.

It isn't simply a case of the people vs corporations. Major groups like Google and Microsoft want to ensure net neutrality because they believe that the telecoms companies could charge them heavily to maintain their presence on the internet. Groups such as have major funding to fight the telecoms companies and it's become a propaganda fight for the goodwill of the US government. The biggest star in favour of network neutrality is Tim Berners-Lee, the Inventor of the World Wide Web. He has gone so far as to claim that "neutral communications medium is essential to our society".

The frontline of this struggle then is in Washington. Things look very different on our side of the pond.

The US telecoms giants hold far greater power than service providers in the UK where wire ownership is different and there is a far greater diversity of providers. Here, the users have the power.

Ofcom currently don't see net neutrality as an issue as they believe that the EU's tight competition laws will prevent any form of dominant control over what we view. The European Commission has committed to net neutrality. Viviane Reding, the EU Commissioner for Information Society and Media recently stated, "I firmly believe in net neutrality. I firmly believe in the principle of access for all. The Commission does not want to see a two-speed internet where the rich benefit and the poor suffer". She has promised that these principals will be enshrined in the new Telecom Package of EU regulations.

It's also relatively easy to change internet service provider in the UK, so those providers who attempt to raise charges or restrict content will be rapidly out-competed and neutral alternatives will remain viable. While much of our online content comes from the US, our access to that content would not be affected by charges from US corporations. Some even suggest that a net-neutral Europe could have a strong competitive advantage over a non-neutral US.

Lastly, it has been suggested that the development of fibre-optic connections to the home will increase internet speeds to the point where restrictions are irrelevant.

In my view, UK users presently have little to fear from the battle being fought in the US. But it never hurts to keep an eye on those who'd undermine the revolution for profit. The internet has changed so much, we must be wary of attempts to change the internet. Regulation can be productive, but restriction is poison to the beautiful anarchistic spirit of the web.


The Unconventional Academic said...

I was going to comment with Tim Berners-Lee, so I'm glad you mentioned him here. Sadly, governments are continuing to control what we can and can't do and see online.

In some cases this is fine - we need some kind of policing to prevent child abuse, but then it can get out of hand (I'm thinking here of Strikethrough banning most of the Harry Potter fandom as it got caught in the hurricane... wait, that might be a good thing too!). But there's also China and the Philippines banning western sites that disagree with their policies.

However, governmental control at least tries to pretend it has the public's best interests at heart. Corporations don't even bother pretending.

I'm not sure this comment has a point, I just felt like sharing my thoughts.

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