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What is net neutrality?

Watch Prof Les Carr & Johanna Walker introduce the concept of net neutrality and explain what it is and what it's not and why it's contentious
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PROFESSOR LES CARR: Net neutrality is a really important principle about the development of the internet and the development of the Web. And it’s really a focus for thinking about what kind of Web do we want in the future. Net neutrality asks the question, should the people who provide access to the internet be able to interfere in or to control, to some extent, what content we are allowed to see or what content we are allowed to create on the internet? Net neutrality is really about the regulation of the internet. And so it considers the internet as consisting of content providers who create Web services, Facebook and Instagram, all of these things.
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And then there are the internet users, people like you and me and people in offices and listening to internet TVs. So between those, between the content providers and the content users, you’ve got the internet service providers, people like British Telecom or in America AT&T, who provide the networks, the cabling, all the wireless communications, the radio communications, that give us access to internet services. And the regulation framework is what controls what is allowed to happen on the internet and who is allowed to do what. So how can internet service providers interfere with or control or influence the kinds of material that they make available?
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Well, they can block some sites and make them inaccessible to their customers, or they can throttle those sites. They can artificially limit the rate that their data is transmitted over their network. And they may do that selectively based on the content type, or they may do that selectively based on which company or which Web address, which internet address, is sending the information. Now, regulation wasn’t necessary in the past because the internet was small and there weren’t many companies on it. And so as it was growing up, there were no rules. But now that it is such an enormous business and so much money is concerned with people’s ability to communicate with companies, then regulation has been popping up.
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We’ve seen it in Chile in 2010, the Netherlands in 2011, Brazil in 2014, recently in the United States. And just now, very recently, we’ve had the single telecoms market in the European commission. And that has created the concept of the open internet, which guarantees that all traffic will be treated equally, subject to some public service exceptions, though dealing with child porn and cyber security and malware and things like that. But there is a compromise for the internet service providers, for the private companies. It allows them to create a fast lane with fast access, for particular kinds of data. And so all of this has proved to be very contentious and has provoked an enormous debate.
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Tim Berners-Lee and Vint Cerf, the creators of the Web and the internet are on the side of net neutrality. But many of the companies that actually provide the internet and internet services to users do not support it and have argued against it. There are compelling arguments on both sides. So let’s think about those now.
In this video, Professor Les Carr introduce the concept of net neutrality by asking:
should the people who provide access to the internet be able to interfere in or to control, to some extent, what content we are allowed to see or what content we are allowed to create on the internet?
He also discusses how Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can control internet traffic and mentions that some countries have recently introduced regulations for net neutrality.
Now watch Johanna Walker explain succinctly what net neutrality is not in this short 50 second video on our YouTube Channel (Johanna is one of our Web Science PhD students and is also a mentor on this course – we recorded this as part of our end of week video for an earlier run of this course).

Join the debate. In the following two steps, Les will outline the arguments for and against net neutrality.
Key players in the net neutrality debate:
  • Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are those who put things in place for you to be able to access the web.
  • Content providers are those who put the content in the web. Even you can be a content provider!
  • Regulatory bodies are those who set and enforce the rules for all this to happen smoothly.
  • The users, the people! They are those who pay and use the services and the content of the web.

Do you know if your ISP controls the data that you consume and provide through the Internet? And if so, how?
What are the regulations in your country around net neutrality?
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