Ever since Sir Tim Berners-Lee revealed his newly created World Wide Web in 1991 (to a largely indifferent public at the time), the modern internet has operated on a simple principle.
All data is of equal value, irrespective of where it comes from, what it contains or where it’s heading.
The principle of net neutrality is that no data is deliberately blocked, throttled or prioritised.
All sites, content and applications should be accessible at whatever speed your broadband connection is capable of supporting at any given moment.
Or so the theory goes.
In reality, that’s not a universally popular outlook, and net neutrality has been under attack in many quarters over recent years.
Indeed, there may be tangible benefits to prioritising certain internet traffic…
Picture the scene
It’s the very near future. You’re in a self-driving vehicle which is relying on GPS and mobile network data to navigate its way down a densely packed city street.
In the back, your child is playing a video game.
If the 5G connection began to slow down, net neutrality laws dictate the gaming app would be just as much of a data priority as the autonomous vehicle.
A less extreme scenario might involve your child playing an MMORPG game that demands minimal latency, while you watch BritBox downstairs.
Again, both input streams would be handled identically by your ISP, even though it’s clearly more critical to the game than the streaming service that data arrives with minimal latency.
Viewed in this context, net neutrality might seem outdated – a relic of a time when we all relied on equally sluggish dial-up modems.
Perhaps surprisingly, Ofcom agrees.
Last week, they declared existing neutrality rules are potentially stifling ISPs and mobile networks from innovation, as well as damaging high-priority services.
Ofcom now believe ISPs should be able to offer packages for bandwidth-heavy activities like gaming, manage web traffic at peak times, and support remote services such as robotic surgery.
Yet advocates of net neutrality argue prioritising any web traffic is the start of s slippery slope, potentially favouring bigger companies with deeper pockets and more influence.
What if ISPs begin throttling connection speeds to rival companies, making it hard to load competitor homepages and view their broadband offers?
What if mobile networks prioritised bandwidth to streaming service A while throttling service B, simply because B refused to pay them the ‘preferred provider’ levy A grudgingly agreed to pay?
What if your internet connection starts running more slowly than your neighbour’s, because they’re playing a game requiring minimal latency and you’re ‘only’ watching BritBox?
Of course, the flipside is that bad actors could also be hobbled. Restricting the connection speeds available to spammers and scammers might diminish these endemic problems.
Relinquishing the principles of net neutrality could reduce the appeal (and profitability) of illegal torrents and streaming sites, while potentially deterring crypto mining or trolling.
A balancing act
It’s worth noting that Ofcom isn’t the only agency trying to balance diametrically opposed interests.
The Wikipedia page on net neutrality currently runs to almost 12,000 words, and still only scratches the surface of a debate where both sides make valid arguments.
In America, net neutrality was enshrined in law under Barack Obama, only to be repealed by Donald Trump who believed individual states should choose their own internet laws.
It’s currently the law across the EU, though a court order can supersede this legislation, yet countries including Australia, China and the Philippines don’t employ net neutrality at all.
The latter approach often gets conflated with censorship, though it’s more to do with the merits of effectively allocating finite bandwidth volumes than callously restricting free speech online.
Even so, expect plenty of backlash against Ofcom’s intention to prioritise some online activities over others…