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  • Writer's pictureRichard

Non-Enviro Post: Net Neutrality - What it is and Why it Matters

The term "net neutrality" has become a common term used in the technology industry as well as mainstream media in recent times. With good reason: it is a principle that has been in place since the Internet become a public access system and has been one of its fundamental, uncontested tenets. It has held by pioneers in development of the web and other technologies as an integral component of open, effective and accessible systems. Yet, net neutrality has been under attack in recent years, being eroded in key areas and for all intents and purposes dispensed with in others. So, why does this matter? To understand this, we'll have to take a quick look at Internet technologies themselves.

Data that traverses the global "network of networks" known as the Internet traverses many paths. It does this in the form of packets (of data). That e-mail you just sent? It just got broken up into thousands of these packets, taking different paths along the networks and re-assembled at the other end so your recipient may read your message. Each packet consists of a header (or meta-data) and a payload - part of the original message. The principle of net neutrality ensures your packets are treated equally to all others. There is no "fast lane" and "slow lane" along these paths. One caveat to this is a technical one. Some packets may receive special treatment (priority processing) due to the type of data involved. This information is obtained from the meta data. For example, if your e-mail arrives three seconds then it otherwise would have, this is surely entirely inconsequential. On the other hand -- and appropriately so -- voice data should receive priority where possible as a few-second delay in voice data can lead to a degraded, uncomfortable phone call. This is the essence of net neutrality.

Corporations, however, have lobbied government (and continue to do so insistently) that their Internet Service Provider (ISPs) Subsidiaries ought to be able to treat traffic on their networks as they see fit, according to commercial interest. This creates defacto slow lanes and fast lanes where in the past there was equality. The repercussions of this are numerous: prioritise "premium" products available from the provider and slow down those offered by competitors (unless a fee is paid by them, of course). Perhaps slow down sites that are critical of the corporation's activities. Make political views in opposition to the company's owners more cumbersome and slow to access ...

The opportunities for exploitation -- to the detriment of the consumer and the health of the Internet as a whole -- are almost endless. This is why Net Neutrality matters. It turns an open, equalised system into one that can be manipulated more easily by increasingly concentrated commercial interests. It is imperative that this cancer does not spread.


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