Some of the world’s largest internet companies are taking part in a day of protest against changes that say will affect net neutrality – but what is net neutrality and should UK citizens be concerned?
:: What exactly is net neutrality?
Net neutrality is a term coined in 2003 to describe the principle that internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all of the data they are providing to customers equally, and not to use their own infrastructure to block out competitors.
:: What is the protest?
Companies such as Amazon, Reddit and Netflix altered the way their services are displayed on Wednesday in protest against the US Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) proposals for deregulation.
The 170 organisations involved are overwhelmingly American, as, of course, is the FCC.
They are worried about proposals that will “destroy net neutrality and give big cable companies control over what we see and do online”.
During his administration, Barack Obama introduced the Open Internet Order, which would require internet service providers to uphold the principle of net neutrality.
However, new FCC chairman Ajit Pai wishes to get rid of the Open Internet Order on competition grounds.
:: Why aren’t British companies and internet users protesting too?
The net neutrality principle is active in British law courtesy of the European Union’s Regulation on Open Internet Access, although the UK already had a voluntary system before this.
:: What is so different between the UK and the US that we can handle this system when they can’t?
Till Sommer, from the UK’s Internet Service Providers Association, told Sky News: “The US is currently engaged in an important debate around net neutrality, one that is much more intense than over here in the UK.”
Mr Sommer said that debate is so much more intense in the US because “we have strong standards backed up by regulations and we have a highly competitive broadband market that allows consumers to switch and choose the provider that best meets their needs”.
:: What are those regulations?
Primarily, we’re talking about the EU’s Regulation on Open Internet Access, which came in to effect in October 2015.
This established the standards by which ISPs have to treat data travelling through their systems, and means that ISPs can’t block or slow down data for competitive or commercial purposes.
Speaking to Sky News, Ed Johnson-Williams, a campaigner at Open Rights Group, said: “The EU’s net neutrality rules are some of the strongest net neutrality protections in the world.”
:: So, we’re winning against the Americans?
Maybe. There’s still the Brexit-factor. As Mr Johnson-Williams noted, the Government plans to convert EU net neutrality rules along with much of the rest of EU law into British law using the Great Repeal Bill.
The Government may at this point amend or repeal current law, as it sees appropriate. “We’ll have to keep an eye out to see if the net neutrality rules are altered post-Brexit,” Mr Johnson-Williams added.
:: Okay, but for now – we’re still doing better than them, right?
While the UK ISP market is far more competitive than that in the US, some issues still need to be ironed out on this side of the pond.
“We have lots of companies that sell both internet access and online content like TV shows and films,” said Mr Johnson-Williams.
“They have an incentive to prioritise their own content as it travels to customers through the internet connections that they control. It’s really important content and services are delivered equally and fairly.”
For instance, he said: “Virgin Mobile doesn’t charge its customers for data used on WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger.
“While this might sound like a great deal, it’s bad for everyone in the long-run. It makes it harder for new messaging companies to build a user-base and break into the market. This reduces innovation and competition.
“Regulators like Ofcom in the UK need to make sure they enforce net neutrality rules properly so ISPs don’t take advantage of their position to the detriment of their customers.”