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What is net neutrality and does it matter? Navigating a world-wide web of inequality

The FCC repealed a law protecting net neutrality against the interests of Internet Service Providers in the US, sparking a nation-wide debate, protests and petitions. Is net neutrality still in effect? What you need to know.

Net neutrality is at risk in the United States after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decided to repeal the law protecting internet as a common carrier, a term that refers to a service provided to the general public without discrimination, like electricity and water utilities. Now the internet will be considered an information provider, and so will be subject to market rules and the oversight of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which acts to protect consumers and encourage competition.

What is net neutrality and who created it

The term net neutrality started being used in 2003 when Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia University in New York City referred to it to underline the importance of the fact that it had to exist. Net neutrality means that there are no discrimination against or in favour of a certain website, nor additional payments available to providers to access content, block or slow down others in place. These features have been key to the development of innovation, encouraging companies to compete on the same level and create new services.

The law on net neutrality

After a long debate that also saw Internet Service Provider (ISP) Comcast, the country’s largest, in a confrontation with Netflix for the charging of an extra fee to speed movie streaming, net neutrality was guaranteed by law in 2015 in the United States with the Internet Freedom Order, signed under the administration of Barack Obama. The order focused on three specific rules regulating internet service: no blocking, no throttling and no paid prioritisation. This meant that ISPs couldn’t discriminate against a particular content or ask higher fees to connect an end user to these.

The commission did allow internet providers to perform “reasonable network management,” which could affect service. However, there were also strict rules as to what fell under this definition. Reasonable management was something that  had a primarily technical justification, not a business purpose.

Protests net neutrality
Protests in Washington DC on 14 December 2017 against what is considered the end of net neutrality © Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Net neutrality debate

For many these provisions protecting internet equality have been the source of innovation, encouraging startups and new ideas because, at least theoretically, online a startup has just as much power as the biggest corporation like, for example, an association fighting for civil rights has the same possibilities as an online gun shop. On the other hand, those who voted for the repeal of the Internet Freedom Order last December insist that the current rules have impeded innovation and addressed non-existent concerns. They claim that now ISPs will be able to invest and innovate more on infrastructure. Ajit Pai was appointed by Trump to the FCC in January last year and is fiercely in favour of the new rule: he claims that with the repeal of the law transparency towards consumers will be clearer and monitoring of ISPs will improve under the FTC.

Read more: Be app-to-date. The top 10 Silicon Valley startups that are trying to save the world

Protests internet Service Providers
Protests in Washington DC against the economic interests of big Internet Service Providers (ISPs) © Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The benefits of net neutrality when in effect

If net neutrality is important for commercial reasons, it is all the more so from a social and political point of view. In June 2016, the United Nations adopted a resolution condemning those countries, like China or Turkey, preventing or disrupting access to any content on the internet to their citizens, in violation of human rights law. In the same year, the EU approved guidelines for the respect of net neutrality. At the moment, although net neutrality isn’t directly under threat in the European Union, the shift in the United States could change the scenario also in other countries where it is still protected by law, seeing as it is such as big player in the World Wide Web.

Protest verizon chicago net neutrality
Protest outside the shop of telecommunications company Verizon in Chicago in December 2017 © Scott Olson/Getty Images

What could change: the repeal of net neutrality explained

US consumers in the near future will probably see more options in their service plans. ISPs will be able to offer some contents free of charge to people that need less band – maybe asking other consumers to pay for other services. They will be allowed to ask for higher fees for online services that wish to have higher speed contents. ISPs claim that in this way they’ll be able to expand free of charge services to people who don’t have them as of today, and they’ll be able to invest more in infrastructure. Legally the situation has returned to how it was before 2015 and many are organising protests and petitions against this.

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