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Net neutrality revisited

In our speedy life, waiting in front of a screen for internet content to load can cause stress. One even can loose temper when confronted with "Not Found". We want it all and we want it now!

There were days when one used to ask about computer's processor speed and memory size. Nowadays one is curious more about data traffic than data processing, asking what speed of internet access you have. The more "Mbps" the better, because bandwidth is never enough.

Growth of wireless networks, the increasing number of users and desire for data-heavy services (internet TV, social networks, cloud computing, online gaming, telephony) are putting strain on networks’ infrastructure and everyone is demanding more speed.

In response to those demands, internet service providers (ISPs) have been developing new business practices that, some say, could run into conflicts with “net neutrality”, a founding principle of the internet. According to it, all data passing over internet should be treated equally regardless of source or type.

15 facts about net neutrality [Infographics]

Heated debate

Net neutrality causes heated debate and ambiguity. Defenders of neutral internet advocate equal treatment for all data in order to safeguard competition, innovation and consumer choice. The opponents argue in favour of differentiation (or discrimination) of services to guarantee service quality and generate additional revenues to fund infrastructure investments.

To avoid bottlenecks, ISPs have introduced "traffic management", giving priority to delay-sensitive applications such as Skype or YouTube over those which can wait (email). It is commonly agreed that this sort of prioritising is inevitable for internet traffic to function properly.

The problems begin when ISPs give preference to one content provider over another for extra payment. This means that if you are rich enough to pay for premium services your content would be delivered more quickly and at higher qualities to a user.

At the expense of smaller companies that cannot pay and will be sent down to slower lane or their content and applications could be even blocked. Therefore the proponents are expressing fears of "two-lane" or "tiered" internet.

The risk is greater where ISPs operate as vertically integrated businesses and can introduce higher prices for premium services to protect their services from competitors.

Net neutrality: all data passing over internet should be treated equally regardless of source or type.

For instance, mobile operators could charge internet telephony services like Skype which are replacing mobile phone calls and text messaging. This is what happened in Netherlands where politicians had to step in to end this kind of "prioritisation".

To regulate or not to regulate

In particular, two camps disagree about regulation of net neutrality. Proponents want it to be enshrined into law, while opponents argue that existing laws and market forces should be sufficient to prevent potential abuse by ISPs.

At the European level, there is no specific legislation on net neutrality. Although the Commission and the European Parliament have clearly supported the principle, EU institutions are not keen on adopting explicit legislation on it.

Instead, they propose to rely on existing EU telecoms rules and monitor internet traffic practices to safeguard the neutral internet.

At this moment, it would be difficult to argue in favour of new rules on net neutrality since different camps employ different definitions of "net neutrality" or "differentiation". Moreover, there have been only solitary instances of abuses by ISPs in Europe so far and the proponents usually refer to hypothetical examples.

As the debate continues, politicians aim to strike the right balance between the parties concerned.

 

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