The Neutral Net

Who says the internet is free?

Feature by Jodi Mullen | 09 Sep 2010
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The big boys are up to something: Google and telecoms giant Verizon have been locked in talks on internet neutrality that potentially threaten to change the democratic approach to web content. Net neutrality states that all information transmitted across the internet should be treated equally, and forbids service providers from creating services where traffic from preferred partners is prioritized over anything else.

Verizon and other ISPs are keen to overturn net neutrality and strike potentially lucrative content delivery deals with media providers. With traditional forms of media increasingly moving to online platforms, Verizon believe that consumers will happily pay a premium to receive it at optimum speeds.

On one level, it’s a fairly simple question of economics; if demand for tiered subscription services and partnerships exists, shouldn’t ISPs be allowed to provide it? To net neutrality campaigners, however, these changes threaten the principles of the open internet by enabling ISPs to discriminate against, or even block, content from rival providers. Fundamentally, is the internet like a utility, where you pay a flat rate every month, or is it like TV, where premium content means a premium price?

The repercussions are potentially vast, with repressive governments able to relegate protest groups to the internet slow-lane. In a post-neutrality world, non-commercial sites would be unable to compete with media giants while poorer internet users would be prevented from accessing the ‘full’ fast web experience.

At the conclusion of talks, Google and Verizon proposed that net neutrality should be preserved but only for fixed landlines – wireless services would be fair game. The line between the two, however, has become increasingly blurred. Experts predict that landline connections will disappear altogether within a decade as devices like mobile broadband dongles become more popular. New rules for the mobile internet could eventually come to govern the entire web.

For now, the Google-Verizon proposals don’t present a legal challenge to current net neutrality legislation. The Federal Communications Commission in the US is clearly worried though, and have denounced the two companies for trying to dictate policy.

The argument is far from settled, however, and it remains to be seen whether governments, corporations, or the people themselves, will control where you go with your browser.