Without a doubt the internet is one of the most important inventions of our times. This worldwide network has revolutionized the way people communicate, work, access information, entertain themselves and much more. Essentially it has reshaped every aspect of our everyday lives.
The internet as we know it today has evolved over the past 30 years. However, some long standing issues that pose a threat to the net, and by extension to its users, still persist with one of them being the debate on the so-called “Net neutrality”.
What it is
What does having a “neutral internet” actually mean? If we were asked to imagine the opposite (i.e. a non-neutral internet), most of us would immediately think of some totalitarian regime or nefarious government having control over and censoring information delivered to its people via the world wide network in order to serve its own sinister purposes.
This techno-thriller scenario is not far off from reality, though net neutrality has come to mean so much more than the mere censoring or ill intended data manipulation; it now covers a wider area of issues such as bandwidth throttling , data discrimination , deep packet inspection  and much more.
Furthermore, it’s no longer just corrupt officials that have such malice in mind. Internet Service Providers (referred as ISPs) are also known to often use shady practices  and follow policies that threaten the internets’ neutrality – all for profit of course.
So, in order for it all to make sense to us, let us paint a mental picture: Imagine an internet unlike the one we know today. A global network the access to which is controlled by each government (not truly global, is it now?). A network whose information is limited, censored or influenced in order to serve the agenda of the ones in power. An internet that is slowed down intentionally by your ISP in order for them to charge you for additional “premium priority access” packages so that you can access online services at a viable speed. That is unless your ISP decides to completely block competing services to promote their own (who needs YouTube when we have ISPvideoShare+?). Such a network of course permits your ISP to inspect information coming out of your devices and decide whether it will be allowed to reach its destination according to its format, data type and other characteristics.
Why it matters
Net neutrality matters because permitting the internet to be shaped in a non-neutral manner will essentially grant your ISP power over your data. If ISPs are allowed to enforce such immoral practices, they can only achieve their goals by closely inspecting all information coming in and out of your internet line, so that it can be decided whether its transmission will continue or not and if so, whether it will be throttled. But other than that, privacy issues also emerge. How would you like the idea of someone looking into your personal information? Isn’t it disturbing to know that your mailman can read your personal correspondence?
Another reason why net neutrality matters is because a non-neutral net essentially violates your rights and threatens your freedom. In the modern era, the digital and physical world have been so closely intertwined that our reality is now extended and fused with our online presence. Therefore, a crime through the internet is a palpable physical threat. Blocking, altering or censoring information violates the right of freedom of speech. Controlling internet access is yet another form of discrimination and so on.
Thirdly, net neutrality matters because a neutral net fosters healthy competition between various online service providers, which in turn promotes the principles of free market and is ultimately in everybody’s best interests. Safeguarding the future of a neutral internet means that ISPs won’t be able to abuse their power to block or throttle down various web services in order to promote their own or those of their business partners.
Lastly, by extension of our argument, net neutrality also matters because it is a key to sparking innovation. Under a neutral net all web service providers are treated equally and are constantly forced to self-improve and evolve in order to keep their clientele from moving to other, new or competing, providers. On the contrary, a non-neutral internet allows the current colossuses in every business to partner with ISPs to monopolize their services by blocking competitive alternatives and preventing new ones from becoming available, thus whoever has the biggest budget (and not necessarily the best or innovative service) benefits from this situation.
What you can do
Spread the word. The internet, whether we like it or not, has become a part of the core structure of modern society and thus issues such as net neutrality should concern all of us. Speaking out about the preservation of net neutrality is vital in cultivating a positive public opinion on the matter. Citizens aware of the issue and its impact in both the physical and virtual world can defend the neutral net and what it stands for.
Reach out to your representatives. Preserving the neutral status of the internet is largely a matter in the hands of those in power. Through coordinated acts such as open letters, political dialogues and debates, let your government officials know how you feel about net neutrality and what it means to you, your community and society in general. Knowing all this, will urge them to act with the means at their disposal to safeguard the neutral net.
Finally, be vigilant. Protecting the open and neutral net relies heavily on people reacting to those that threaten to compromise it. Be on the watch for your ISP trying to slip in extra charges for “priority” or “premium” bandwidth services. If such a thing occurs you can report it to the competent authority in your country (e.g the FCC in the US, the BEREC in the EU, the TRAI in India, etc.).
- “Bandwidth throttling”, Wikipedia. Last accessed on November 15th 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bandwidth_throttling.
- “Data Discrimination”, Wikipedia. Last accessed on November 19th 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Data_discrimination.
- “Deep Packet Inspection”, Wikipedia. Last accessed on November 19th 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deep_packet_inspection.
- “Comcast Corp. v. FCC”, Wikipedia. Last accessed on August 3rd 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comcast_Corp._v._FCC.
Constantinos Doumanidis is an undergraduate student at Aristotle University pursuing a major in Electrical and Computer Engineering. Constantinos interests span from social media and digital content creation to coding, biomedical engineering and the internet of things. In the future, Constantinos aspires to combine these and work on something that will contribute to social welfare and the betterment of mankind.