The Importance of Net Neutrality

Net neutrality is a term coined by media law professor Tim Wu in a 2003 paper and used to describe the legislative principle that no government should mandate internet service providers from treating all data as anything but equal, with no favour or penalty being incurred by individuals for pursuing specific data.

Net neutrality, within the United States of America, is effectively dead. This despite fervent campaigns to prevent its abolition and current litigious efforts to overturn the FCC’s partisan ruling. Some may say “what I don’t know won’t hurt me”. But, this article intends to prove why net neutrality is an essential part of life, especially when the United Nations felt it important enough to call the Internet a fundamental human right in 2016.

Not Having Net Neutrality Will Nickel-and-Dime You

The above image is from Portugal’s telecommunications market. Portugal is one of the few countries that has already destroyed net neutrality within its borders. The best way to describe the difference between an Internet with or without net neutrality would be paying for utilities like water, hydroelectricity or power.

Say you pay $X each month for your water bill. While the monthly cost of your water rises with usage, that rise in price follows a linear progression. Imagine your water was handled like Internet usage in a state where net neutrality does not exist. There would be individual surcharges for everything. Things like watering your plants, showering, cooking, washing your clothes and drinking that water would become pay-per-use. Furthermore, the flow of that water would be slowed down when using it for things your “water plan” would not cover like shooing away stray animals with a water hose.

Even when net neutrality was in effect, more than one telecommunications company was caught throttling its customers’ bandwidth. They favoured whatever the ISP offered in-house over third-party services like Netflix:

  • Comcast used to throttle download speeds of BitTorrent until the FCC forced Comcast to cease their antics in 2004.
  • Also in 2004, the Madison River Communications company was fined by the FCC to the tune of $15,000 for throttling access to Vonage, a rival to MRC.
  • AT&T was caught impeding access to FaceTime until customers paid for its shared data plans.
  • Just last summer, Verizon Wireless was accused of throttling user’s speeds after its customers realized that streaming video services like Netflix and YouTube were downloading at a snail’s pace. Verizon attempted to defend itself by stating the slow speeds were during periods of stress testing on its network.

In a country without net neutrality, telecommunications companies would face no monetary or legal consequence for hampering customers’ use of their services.

One might argue that those companies could still suffer for such actions in a truly capitalist Internet. But, those companies will ensure that only the most expensive of plans deal with services that would be affected by throttling streaming video or visiting competitors’ websites. Some say the free market grows in net neutrality’s absence. In reality, America’s Wi-Fi infrastructure places most of the country under a telecom oligopoly.

Restoring Net Neutrality With a VPN

If the government can’t or is not willing to enforce net neutrality, there is one way we can do it ourselves: use a VPN. Some people argue this won’t work, but that’s not necessarily true.

VPNs have many uses, from concealing IPs to getting around geo-blocking. But the feature that is relevant in this case is data encryption. When using the Internet while on a VPN, everything you send and receive is encrypted. Hence, your ISP is unable to determine what you’re doing.

The big argument against that is couldn’t the ISP just slow down all encrypted content? In theory, yes. In practice, no. Consider how common encryption is these days. It would be hard to differentiate between traffic that is VPN and traffic that is not. Some of the more oppressive governments in the world are struggling with blocking VPNs. What chance does your ISP stand? As long as you opt for a good VPN, you should be off to the races.

Net neutrality ensures that the almighty dollar cannot control what people can enjoy online. Without it, we will all be taken advantage of, whether we know it or not.

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