Net neutrality is the concept that all information and services should have equal and open access online without regard to content, destination or source. Both net neutrality—and the associated concept of the ‘open internet’—are considered to be founding principles of the World Wide Web. Concerns that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are looking to circumvent net neutrality principles—deciding how fast data will be transmitted and at what quality—have led to campaigns to explicitly legislate for net neutrality. Without net neutrality campaigners fear a two-tiered service with fast and slow lanes could develop. In the past few years, the EU and other countries have attempted to explicitly legislate to ensure Internet Service Providers (ISPs) operate in a net neutral fashion.

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Net neutrality definition

Net neutrality is the concept that all information and services should have equal and open access online without regard to content, destination or source. Both net neutrality—and the associated concept of the ‘open internet’—are considered to be founding principles of the World Wide Web.

Concerns for fast and slow lanes on the web

In recent years, fears have been growing amongst open rights groups and internet ‘content creators’ (e.g. Amazon, eBay, Netflix) that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will seek to no longer offer a net neutral service, and instead start charging websites for preferential access arrangements: Thus creating a tiered internet with fast and slow lanes.

Despite being proponents of net neutrality, some large content providers (e.g. Netflix and Google) have already set up arrangements with big ISPs in the US for direct connections  where they run dedicated computer servers deep inside the ISPs—known as ‘peering connections’. This allows the ISPs to run these services with a greater bandwidth in preferential arrangement.

ISPs oppose net neutrality regulation 

ISPs, meanwhile, oppose net neutrality regulation on two related grounds. First, ISPs argue that by banning big websites from paying providers to pioneer ways of making their service faster, network innovation will freeze, consequently making networks less profitable and thereby removing a reason for investing in network infrastructure. Second, ISPs presently argue that without demand management measures for data hungry services—which net neutrality regulation could prohibit—the delivery of services to everyone would be slowed down.  

UK approach to net neutrality

In 2011, Ofcom explained that its approach to net neutrality would continue to rely primarily on there being effective competition amongst ISPs. All of the major ISPs are signatories to the voluntary Open Internet Code, which put forward a set of commitments in support of the open internet: no blocked services; greater transparency; and re-affirmed pledge that unreasonable traffic management practices will not be used to target and degrade the services of a competitor.

Net neutrality in Europe and around the world

The European Commission and Parliament passed a package reforms in March 2014, as part of the Connected Continent: Building a Telecoms Single Market, which include certain provisions enshrining net neutrality in EU law. The UK Government is assessing how this will impact upon the industry’s open internet voluntary code.

Chile was the first country to introduce net neutrality regulation, followed a year later by the Netherlands where it is now illegal for mobile telephone operators to block or charge consumers extra for using internet-based communications services. In February 2015, the US telecoms regulator approved a plan to govern the internet like a public utility, thereby enshrining net neutrality into US law.

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