It can be easy to forget that the way we access the web is still controlled by only a handful of companies. They own the physical infrastructure that allows internet signals to pass between two points, and hold a tremendous amount of power as our reliance on the internet increases.
How would you feel if your ISP decided that to access certain sites you must pay an extra charge? If you want to access Facebook it'll cost you an extra £5 per month, and YouTube will be a tenner, for example. This scenario sounds far-fetched but, in reality, there's no law to prevent it happening.
It's reasonable to expect customers who use more data to pay more. But things aren't that simple: ISPs don't have how much data we consume in mind, but where or from whom we consume it.
Net Neutrality: Favouritism at the top
Going back a couple of years, customers who bought an iPhone 5 on the US AT&T network were told they couldn't use the built-in FaceTime feature over 3G, even when such usage fell within the constraints of their data allowance. We've seen something similar here in the UK, with several operators disabling Skype and smartphone-tethering on their networks. Theoretically, this selective attitude toward which services can be enjoyed might be used to promote rival services with whom the carriers have favourable agreements.
Media-reform advocacy groups such as Free Press (freepress.net), which started the 'Save The Internet' campaign (savetheinternet.com), voice a chilling version of the future when they argue that the ISPs, and the media companies that back them, "want to tax content providers to guarantee speedy delivery of their data. They want to discriminate in favour of their own apps, services and content, while slowing or blocking competitors' services."
In 2005, AT&T caused outrage when it proposed charging increased rates to certain web companies so they could receive preferential treatment for their web traffic. This would have in effect given the paying sites faster download speeds than their rivals, and made AT&T a tidy profit.
And in 2007, Comcast, the largest cable TV and internet provider in the US, was found to be tampering with traffic to certain file-sharing sites to make them unusable.
A study by the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC) and the European Commission found at least 20 percent of mobile internet users in Europe have signed contracts that allow their ISP to restrict services such as VoIP and peer-to-peer file-sharing. The same is true for home broadband.
Net Neutrality: Freedom at stake
Advocates are concerned that the internet will become a series of walled gardens, with access strictly controlled and regulated by a handful of large corporations - each of whom offer their own services and media. It's almost a return to the days of AOL and Compuserve, with customers locked into their specific version of the web.
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