A Guide to Net Neutrality

  • Net neutrality is making news lately.
  • Changes are coming in the US.
  • Could they affect Australia as well?

 

You may have heard a lot about net neutrality recently – but you might not know what it is or how it affects us. Here’s a quick guide to what it is and what it could mean for you.

What is it?

Net neutrality means that all information on the internet is treated equally – that is, your internet service provider (ISP) can’t give priority to particular sites. Under net neutrality laws, visiting a big, well-known site like Google should be just as quick and easy as visiting your dad’s new start-up site, Jerry’s Discount Search. The UN has said that unimpeded access to the internet is a basic human right.

It’s been in the news recently because it’s looking like it’s about to be repealed in America – it goes under a vote today, and if the involved parties vote as they said they would, the repeal will go through.

What does this mean for America?

The big worry is that ISPs could start prioritising internet traffic based on who gives them the most money – meaning if Google enters a partnership with one or all of the ISPs, the ISPs will slow down or even block access to other search sites, meaning poor Jerry may never get the chance to build his business. In theory, you could switch to another ISP that offers equal access to all sites, but in America there aren’t that many  – around 40% of the country only has access to one ISP.

The other concern is that ISPs may start charging extra for access to some sites – they may provide an extra ‘search bundle’ on top of the basic plan that provides access to Google, or a ‘social media bundle’ that gives access to Facebook and Twitter. It’s similar to the way subscription TV providers charge for things like sports or movies on top of the basic subscription.

Now, the ISPs have claimed that neither of these things will happen – but without the net neutrality laws in place to stop them, they could backtrack on this promise.

What about Australia?

Well, interestingly, we don’t have net neutrality laws in Australia, and never have. This means that our ISPs have been free all along to slow, block, or charge for access to certain sites if they wanted to. The thing that has stopped them is competition – since we have more choice of ISPs, if one of them started affecting our access to certain sites, we’d easily be able to move to another one.

Technically, some ISPs have been prioritising access for sites – for example, when an ISP like Optus lets you stream things like Netflix and Spotify without it using up your data. This is called zero-rating, and again it has led to concerns about smaller start-ups being at a disadvantage, but as more and more plans include unlimited internet usage it’s becoming less relevant.

So could the repeal affect us?

Here’s how net neutrality repeal in America could affect you in Australia:

-          You’re an online business based out of Australia, but trying to crack into the American market. If American ISPs do start prioritising the bigger, more established sites over the little entrepreneurs, you’re not going to be able to reach the customers that you need to without the help of some serious cash.

-          American companies like Netflix may be forced to pay more for high priority or risk losing customers to faster sites – and these costs would be transferred to the customer, meaning the price of your Netflix subscription could go up.

Could the repeal of net neutrality affect our internet speed in Australia?

Probably not. Even if you’re accessing an American website, the speed should be the same as it always was. Since no-one owns the Internet, and it’s so huge, there are many, many ways for data to get from America to Australia. The only part the ISPs can control is the connection between them and the customer’s house.

What now?

We wait to see the result of the vote – and remain thankful that in Australia we have options when it comes to choosing an ISP!