Like so many other buzz words and phrases, “net neutrality” is one that I’d seen time and time again and mentally pushed aside. As John Oliver puts it, “the only two words which promise more boredom in the English language are ‘featuring Sting’”.
However, unlike Sting, it turns out that net neutrality’s incredibly relevant – and affects nearly every person in the world.
SO WHAT EXACTLY IS “NET NEUTRALITY”?
I’m glad you asked! Net Neutrality, put simply, prevents Internet providers like Telstra and Optus from dictating what kinds of content you’re able to access online. For example, if net neutrality weren’t in place, Telstra could implement a tiered system of Internet access where the highest paying customers could access everything on the web, while those who pay less could only access information Telstra chooses to promote.
Think of it like Google ads. When searching via Google, the first links displayed are from advertisers who pay Google to put their messages up top. Removing net neutrality would allow Internet providers to do the same by choosing content that best suits their own interests.
Big U.S. Internet service providers Verizon and Time Warner Cable have been lobbying for the end of net neutrality in the U.S., leading to the creation of the Open Internet proposal. The proposal would allow for fast and slow lanes where online services can make deals for better service while the rest of the web are left behind. These “fast lanes” prioritise complying companies that can afford to pay premium prices and leave the rest of the web behind.
… SO WHY DO I CARE ABOUT NET NEUTRALITY AGAIN?
The Internet is currently built on a level playing field. Small Internet startups and crowdfunded ventures that otherwise wouldn’t be able to pay the overheads in a retail setting get an equal share of the stage online with large businesses.
Ending net neutrality would allow Internet providers to charge businesses to have their content promoted. Any websites not complying would have their speeds slowed to make content sluggish, invisible and, well, useless.
In effect, if the net neutrality battle came to Australian shores, the likes of Telstra and Optus could potentially force businesses to pay whatever fee they decide is appropriate to be visible to consumers, or else. Sounds a bit like a mob shakedown, doesn’t it?
That’s because it is.
WHAT DOES THAT MEAN FOR ME?
Effectively, the end of net neutrality means that, unless you can afford to pay for the very best Internet, you won’t be shown the content you want. For example, if you searched “car companies Australia” and only Jeep had paid Telstra and Optus to be visible, you would not see content from Honda, Ford, BMW, or any other car retailer.
It also means that, if you’re one of the many Australians aspiring to own an online business, you won’t be visible online unless you pay the Telstras and Optus’ of the world a premium that they decide.
WOAH, I’M ANGRY AND CONFUSED. ISN’T ANYBODY GOING TO STOP THIS?
After receiving some 1.4 million public comments on the Open Internet proposal and several popular websites including Netflix, Tumblr and Reddit calling for a “day of action” this week, it’s clear that the end of net neutrality is a topic that many aren’t happy about, with further backing from tech giants like Google, Twitter, Etsy, KickStarter, Mozilla and Vimeo.
I personally haven’t publicly commented on the proposal, but I do admit that the end of what’s being called the “golden era” of the Internet is a bit terrifying. And worse yet, my Internet startup dream of a Tinder for people to meet up with and cuddle cute animals in their area will never see the light of day.
And that, in itself, is a tragedy.
Jack Cornwell is a Research Assistant at BCM