What is Net Neutrality (and Why Should You Care About It)?

The term net neutrality refers generally to controversies over regulation of Internet networks.

Specifically, net neutrality relates to the policies of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) for controlling access to network services. Some service providers may prefer to regulate the flow of traffic through their networks for business reasons, while free economy advocates suggest that traffic controls are unnecessary and could in fact be a detriment to future growth of the Internet.

Net Neutrality and QoS

Quality of Service (QoS) technology is at the center of many net neutrality debates as QoS policies enable ISPs to limit or even completely block traffic from targeted applications. For example, online video streaming services and peer-to-peer (P2P) applications like BitTorrent can generate huge amounts of traffic across the Internet; therefore, an ISP may wish to limit traffic from BitTorrent, Netflix or other specific services to conserve their network resources for other, more profitable purposes.

As an alternative to limiting traffic, ISPs could theoretically instead charge premium prices to support certain types of applications on their networks to make money. Some net neutrality observers fear this may tempt providers to engage in anti-competitive practices, such as charging exorbitantly high fees that lock out smaller businesses from Internet ecommerce.

Net Neutrality in Business and Government

Historically, the Internet evolved with a principle of generally free and open network access to information.

However, as high-speed Internet services like live video become increasingly popular and sophisticated, the cost of producing and maintaining them increases sharply.

To ensure a balance between free information and business opportunity is maintained on the Internet in the future, likely some form of ongoing government regulatory system will be required.

In many countries, no official regulations are in place to enforce Internet neutrality.

Net Neutrality in the United States

In February, 2015 - the U.S. Federal Communications Commission voted to classify broadband Internet (including mobile data networks) as a public utility. This legal decision dictates that U.S. Internet providers cannot block access to (legal) content, cannot engage in bandwidth throttling (but can still set usage limits), and cannot manipulate traffic speeds for money (so-called "paid prioritization" practices). The decision faces legal and practical challenges. Many in the industry are concerned over the side effects on the businesses of telecommunications companies.