The internet. The tubes are inside the boxes. AP/Press Association Images
On the Line

The five things you should know about net neutrality

The first thing is what it is.

ON MONDAY, US President Barack Obama made a strong pronouncement that he was backing net neutrality.

Obama made the argument for “free and open internet” and said that companies should not be allowed have an “internet fast lane”.

Obama’s comment comes amid heated debate among on-line industry sectors as the US Federal Communications Commission seeks to draft new rules to replace those struck down this year by a US appeals court, which said the agency lacked authority to regulate Internet service firms as it does telephone carriers.

Under the FCC plans, internet providers would charge companies a premium for sending data. This goes against the basic concept of net neutrality.

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1. What is net neutrality?

At its core, network neutrality is the idea that all websites are treated equally by internet service providers. If, for example, you are on UPC broadband, you expect to open as quickly as Facebook or as quickly as a site for your local chipper.

It’s what has helped make the internet ubiquitous – the idea that established corporations can’t break off a larger chunk of the pie than start-ups simply by waving money at service providers.

2. So if it’s so great, why does the FCC want to change it?

In short: because a court told them to. In January an appeals court struck down as unconstitutional a rule that bars broadband internet providers from blocking or playing favourites for online services

The case was brought by US telecom giant Verizon and was opposed by Netlix, Google, Facebook and Amazon. Now, the FCC has to come up with some law that will appease the courts.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler disagreed with Obama’s idea that the internet should be regulated, but the FCC’s own proposals in April allowed for paid fast lanes.

3. What is Obama doing?

Nothing. But not because he doesn’t want to. The FCC is an independent body and the ruling came from a US court. However, Obama did appoint Wheeler as FCC chairman. Wheeler’s previous job was as a cable company lobbyist.

On Monday, he called for the FCC to treat the internet as an important utility like water or electricity. That means that while it could be charged for, it would be tightly regulated.

Many on both sides are against this idea. Some argue that the market itself should make ISPs treat data equally – if a person is receiving slow internet, they will not pay – and some see regulation as a slippery slope to censoring the internet.

4. What happens next?

The FCC will publish new rules on the issue next week, aimed at taking a vote at their December meeting. However, Obama’s intervention could push that timeline back.

5. How will this affect us?

In reality, it won’t affect us too much. Any major site, and a vast amount of others, would co-locate their hosting, allowing non-American users access sites.

In April, the European Parliament voted in favour of net neutrality.

Under the legislation, all online traffic will be treated equally across all EU states, and prevents ISPs from giving preferential treatment to its own services.

But, if the US changes its laws, it could open the door for a challenge to EU law.

Read: EP votes in favour of net neutrality laws and to end roaming charges

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