What if you couldn’t load this page because someone paid to slow it down?
Today, 12th July, thousands of websites across the Internet are going to be closing their homepages or putting up banners in protest. But it’s not just a protest, it’s also a preview of what the future of the Internet could look like.
The protests are against the dismantling of Net Neutrality, which is what is about to happen in the USA right now. And while it won’t directly affect the rest of the world, it will cause ripples there, too.
Now, you might be wondering what Net Neutrality is. First, I’m going to tell you what it isn’t.
Imagine if websites could choose how fast their pages loaded. Or rather, pay Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to make their pages load faster than others’. ISPs like Airtel or Verizon could give those websites priority, sending their data first and letting the others wait.
Technically, giving priority is not very hard. ISPs already do it, albeit the other way round: priority is not given to websites, only to customers.
I use Vodafone in an area where there are only 2G towers. (Actually, there is a 3G tower, but it’s too far away for my phone to reach it unless I climb up a tree or something). So it makes sense to buy a 2G data-pack, because that’s cheaper, right? Wrong. If I buy a 3G data pack, Vodafone actually makes my speeds faster: it gives me priority.
3G data plans are faster than 2G data plans even when they are both connecting to the same 2G tower!
That seems a bit unfair, but it can be justified. 3G people are paying more, so might as well give them better service even if 3G itself is not accessible. (It feels unfair to me only when I’m on a 2G plan).
But what is threatening to happen now is different. When people pay for priority, they get better service — but that service is the same no matter what they choose to load. If websites could pay for priority, then the richest ones will get all the bandwidth. They’ll load much faster.
And the other websites will become so slow that they’ll barely be able to load at all.
The amount of bandwidth in the world is limited. It depends on how many Internet cables and wireless links and cellphone towers the ISPs have. So when one website is sped up, it follows that others have to be slowed down. When one website pays to be sped up, it’s not just paying to speed up. It’s also paying to slow down all the other websites in the world.
That’s one of the things Net Neutrality in not about.
Net Neutrality is the idea that everyone on the Internet should have equal access to put up content and share their views. Of course, there are physical constraints: some people will have less bandwidth than others, and some areas in the world may just not be well-connected. But once you’re on the Internet, Net Neutrality strives to make it as equal as possible.
Net Neutrality means that Internet providers should treat all websites equally. They should not discriminate. The should not treat some websites better than others, or slow some website down.
Net Neutrality is the reason vodafone.in loads properly on an Airtel network, even though Vodafone and Airtel are fierce competitors.
Some years ago, Facebook was trying to introduce something in India called Free Basics. The idea was that, if people were too poor to afford a full Internet connection, they could at least get a limited edition. They would get a low-cost data-pack — but there was a catch. That data pack only allowed you to load a certain set websites chosen by Facebook, and no others.
Free Basics violated the principles of Net Neutrality. The few websites they chose would be given an unfair advantage over all the rest. And some people may grow up thinking that only those few websites made up the whole Internet.
You could argue that the financially poor would at least be able to access those few websites. But is it really right to be limited to the few websites that Facebook chooses? And Facebook would surely not let its competitors be part of that few. Should one company really be allowed to have so much control over what people get to see?
The netizens of India rejected the idea. They decided that, instead of a limited, company-controlled Internet, it was better to have no Internet at all.
Other countries didn’t feel the same (or at least, their governments didn’t). Some of them has Internet.org, which is basically Free Basics under another name. Many people in those countries now think that ‘Internet’ is a synonym for ‘Facebook’.
But with Free Basics, you at least had the option of buying a fresh data plan with the full Internet. What’s going to happen in the USA is even worse.
The USA’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is planning to cancel all Net Neutrality rules in the country. That will let companies pay for priority on the Internet — the whole Internet, not just one small, special data plan. And why does that spell disaster (for the USA, at least)? Because almost every website in the world will stop loading.
Getting rid of Net Neutrality will also let ISPs do other things. They’ll be able to charge more for accessing some particular websites. Maybe you’ll need to pay more for WhatsApp calls, because that competes directly with their phone service. They may even divide the Internet into “slow lanes” and “fast lanes”, where only the companies with money can make their websites load quickly.
The telecom company Verizon now owns Yahoo. Will they make Yahoo Search load faster than Google? And will Microsoft then spend millions boosting Bing? Will Google+ dig into its deep pockets to outpace Facebook? And YouTube do the same to Vimeo? And Uber to Lyft?
And what about Wikipedia, Medium, Khan Academy, HowStuffWorks? What about the not-for-profit websites, the ones running on donations, the millions of smal-business and personal websites who can’t afford to pay? All the bandwidth will be hogged by a few big companies, and here’s what the rest of the websites will look like:
They’ll still be loading.
Images thanks to battleforthenet.com. I haven’t researched this article too extensively, so do go there for more information and also to get involved!