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Should you care about network neutrality? iStock

This week (8 May), British comedian John Oliver made an impassioned plea for internet users to come together to protect net neutrality in the US, where it is coming under heavy political pressure. But what exactly is net neutrality, what does it mean, and why should you care?

Essentially, the proposals state that internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all data equally, not giving enhanced coverage, preferential treatment or manipulated search results to any websites, services or applications in exchange for money. Sounds simple, right? It's not.

For years now, service providers in the US (that's companies like T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T) have clashed with government and legislators about the ideas.

They argue it gives federal agencies too much power over their business interests.

On the flipside, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) believes the rules "protect and maintain open, uninhibited access to legal online content" without sway from corporations.

In February 2015, it adopted a set of enhanced net neutrality proposals into law.

What does net neutrality do?

In reality, it helps to – as Oliver put it – create a "level playing field" so that huge, well established, companies cannot use their vast amount of resources to undermine smaller firms before they have a chance to develop their business, products or services.

It means all lawful data on the internet is treated the same. For example, a company like Verizon is restricted from giving its own hypothetical streaming service preferential treatment over competitive services, such as YouTube or Netflix.

When establishing the law the FCC chose to enforce three main tenants: no blocking of legal content, no throttling (slowing) of internet traffic and no paid prioritisation in terms of content.

Why would anyone disagree?

Every company, be it Google, Yahoo, Netflix, Virgin, T-Mobile or Verizon, will have its own individual position on the merits of net neutrality. In some cases, firms object because they claim the law harms investment, slows innovation and could potentially increase taxes.

It's important to remember these companies exist to make money. Even so, the net neutrality argument is not always black-and-white. For example, getting rid of the rules may usher in an era of reduced data plans, something Facebook tried (and failed) to implement in India.

On the other hand, advocates of the law stress that handing over power of the internet – and the vast amount of information it contains – to ISPs will let them dictate what data you see, when you see it, and how they use the web to market their own products and services.

There is precedent for this. In 2012, US giant AT&T was caught blocking Apple's Facetime application on its mobile networks unless user's paid extra money. In another example, Verizon was found to be restricting access a Google Wallet app that it was competing with.

Most recently, the FCC accused two US companies, AT&T and Verizon, of violating net neutrality law after they both launched free data plans for selected content and services. Verizon, in a somewhat shameless PR interview, later denied it wanted to crush net neutrality.

Instead, one official said the firm simply wants to put it on a "different legal footing." It failed to mention the legal case it took against the FCC on the topic where it branded the proposals illegal.


What's happening now?

In January 2017, US president Donald Trump appointed Ajit Pai to the position of chair of the FCC and almost immediately he promised to roll back current law. It wasn't a complete surprise, in his previous roles Pai was a telcommunications lawyer and former general counsel at Verizon.

"During the Trump administration, we will shift from playing defence at the FCC to going on offense," Pai said in December last year. "We need to fire up the weed whacker and remove those rules that are holding back investment, innovation, and job creation."

Not everyone agrees.

This week (8 May), Mozilla, the developer of the Firefox browser, publicly slammed Pai in a blog post titled Why the Next 10 Days Are Critical to the Internet's Future.

Ashley Boyd, vice president of advocacy, wrote: "Net neutrality is about more than packets and data – it's about upholding free speech, competition, innovation and user choice. So what do we do? What worked last time: loud, bold and relentless grassroots action."

The future of the internet

In the US, Pai's proposals will be further debated at the FCC on 18 May. Last year, the European Union (EU) published its own guidelines largely in favour of net neutrality proposals. It remains to be seen how Brexit will impact on future UK legislation.

In the meantime, lobbying on both sides of the argument will continue. Following Oliver's HBO segment the FCC was flooded with so much internet traffic it was taken offline. Echoing the talk show host's approach, Mozilla also created a simple way to contact the agency.

Last month, on April 26, more than 800 start-ups, innovators, investors, and entrepreneurial support organisations from all 50 US states signed an open letter to Pai in an attempt to protect net neutrality. "Don't leave America's innovators behind," it pleaded.