Ever Wondered About…Net Neutrality?

Emotive subject alert! But here’s a simple (and neutral) low-down on an important issue:

The acid test

What is it?

Net neutrality is the principle that all data carried over the internet should be given equal priority, regardless of the content type, source or user.

Obviously, it’s a lot more complicated than that at its core, but essentially when we talk about net neutrality we’re talking about preserving a kind of internet democracy, and ensuring a level playing field when it comes to the flow of traffic. That’s to say: No ISP gets ‘special treatment’ or is allowed to charge more for faster delivery of data, and that data cannot be unlawfully blocked by ISPs (such as that which competes with the ISP’s content).

Various ISPs and tech players (including Microsoft, Amazon and Yahoo!) advocate the principle of net neutrality, arguing that it preserves the internet as a free and open technology, and lowers barriers for innovation – higher costs for certain types of data could make some tech start-ups, for example, unviable.  Those against say that in moving beyond net neutrality, the higher costs could equal even faster internet and much-needed investment in an already heavily-burdened infrastructure.

Perhaps not unsurprisingly, Google supports a ‘higher tier’ high-speed internet which sites could pay to use at a premium, and has proposed to deliver this with Verizon.

This rather brilliant infographic breaks down the arguments for and against pretty well.

Why should I care?

The debate has been rumbling for years, but now it’s hotting up.  The UK Government effectively supports an end to net neutrality, and regulator Ofcom is to due to clarify its position on net neutrality in UK this year. Over in US, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has recently ruled against any outright blocking and any “unreasonable discrimination” of web sites or applications by fixed-line broadband providers (ie. supporting net neutrality). Interestingly, the same does not apply in equal measure to wireless providers like AT&T.

Now in the UK, BT has controversially started to offer their Content Connect service, allowing ISPs using BT’s network to charge content firms for the delivery of bandwidth hungry high-speed video. This signals the beginning of a second tier internet, and is already causing concern among net neutrality advocates.

We should care because we’re due to hear a lot more about it, and because this is certain to have ramifications for digital marketers at some stage, sooner or later.

If net neutrality is protected, this is generally good news in cost terms for tech start-ups and marketers alike, but with more data than ever being carried, networks are in danger of becoming overloaded and one way or another infrastructure investments must be made and paid for. It also means that as users there’s another upside: We won’t be inundated with sponsored content, prioritised over the content we choose, as some fear.

If net neutrality fails to survive, we will be called upon as marketers to find ever more creative ways of developing and delivering content online, so as not to be hamstrung by higher costs for say, video content. That said, for content producers (which increasingly means brands) who are willing and able to pay, it suggests a huge opportunity to cut swiftly through the online noise and deliver best-quality content at super-speed to consumers.  For advertisers, it provides a boost, by offering the possibility of sponsored priority content.

So perhaps it really will be survival of the fittest.

More reading

The Open Rights Group campaign to preserve net neutrality

Kate Spiers is director of Wisdom London, an integrated communications agency with a passion for technology and a pragmatic approach to social media. Say hello here!


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