The first time I heard of the term, “Internet Neutrality” I did not understand its true meaning. After all the Internet is supposed to be the disruptive technology that have brought equality to users. Anyone now can publish without the need of being tied to a newspaper, magazine or a publisher. Freedom of expression is still very much in place (well, most of the places in the world anyway). Is this not an Utopian realm that we are in?
However Professor Stephen Wicker’s Massive Open Online Course, “Wiretaps to Bigdata” which I successfully completed in May 2014 had opened my eyes to the issue of “Internet Neutrality” (IN) . Why the tech savvy internet users, especially those of Professor Wicker’s intellect are up in arms against what is happening to IN? What does IN entail? Why having IN is essential to all Internet users, rich or poor, power or just men-on-the-street? An article in the UK’s The Observer (July 26, 2014) attempted to answer some of these questions. It mentioned the report on Youtube (HBO) about Internet Neutrality by John Oliver. Watch this hilarious video (warning: adult language is used but censored!) to find out more about the issue of IN.
IN means that the Internet Service Provider (ISP) is expected to treat all its subscribers as equals. Any packets of data sent and received by any subscriber will be done on an orderly queue or in practice many, many such order queues. No one is to be treated preferentially and the speed of data transmission is a factor of just how big is the “pipe” (capacity) divided by how many users are concurrently sending and receiving data. You can subscribe for a bigger “pipe” to have more data traffic to/from your site but each bit of the data that you send and receive are treated on the same way as the others. It is like travelling on a tolled highway, every car pays the same toll rate and travel at the maximum prevailing speed of the traffic at the particular stretch of the road.
Now IN is under threat! The court in the USA has just allowed a media company to be given a special treatment by its ISP so that data flow to and from this company’s websites are preferentially treated and given “queue jumping” right. Of course the ISP justifies this special treatment and negating the principle of IN by showing that this media company is paying extra for the service. At first, it seems there is nothing wrong. A passenger who is able to pay for a first class seat on an airplane is entitled to better service, flat-bed seat, caviar, champagne and the works compare to fellow passengers travelling on economic class seats. But internet traffic is not like travelling on an airplane where all the passengers, regardless of the class of seats that they have traveled will depart and arrive together. First class passengers on the same flight do not get to fly faster and arrive earlier. However in the IN’s case, now those companies who pay extra to the ISP are in fact given a different plane so that they could fly faster than the rest of the crowd. Thus discrimination of the type of users of the Internet has been created and allowed by the USA legal system with the Federal Communications Commission very likely to side with the ISPs.
Now it seems that if you have more traffic and willing to pay more, you can have a “special lane” on the information highway that the others are not allowed to enter. This discrimination against the common internet users is a bad precedent. It allows another form of censorship of the Internet at the hands of the ISPs. If people accessing your portal is experiencing congestion all the time, they will move on. Big businesses can virtually smother out the small guys by buying up the data flow available. That is the danger that the tech savvy people have identified.
If you have more vehicles and bigger vehicles on the highway, does that give you the right to take up all the space on the fast lane and forbid the other users from enjoying the high speed travel?
The way things are going in the US, it seems size is might and might is right and the ISPs and Big Businesses can have their cake and eat it.
Footnote: This article is contributed by Dr. YN Chow who thinks that the rights of internet users all over the world is in danger of being stepped on if Internet Neutrality is being dismantled.