As the EU pushes tech companies to pay for internet infrastructure upgrades, some fear it will encourage internet service providers to prioritize traffic from big tech companies, ending the net neutrality. What is net neutrality, why is it essential for a fair internet, and how could governments force tech companies to build infrastructure that can destroy net neutrality?
What is net neutrality?
Over the past few years, the concept of net neutrality has garnered frequent media attention, and whenever the topic is brought up, much of the engineering community rallies in support of the idea. But what is the neutrality of the net and how does it affect the use of the Internet? Simply put, net neutrality is the idea that all internet traffic is equal and as such should be treated the same. This means that all data broadcast over a network should be given the same priority, regardless of its origin, size or destination.
Of course, the quality of a connection will determine the maximum data rate, which is why data centers often have better upload and download speeds compared to a privately hosted server. But this speed depends on physical characteristics and not on an arbitrary software process which observes a data packet and then allocates resources according to its level of perceived importance.
Why is net neutrality essential for a fair network?
One only has to look at big tech companies like Google and Netflix to see why net neutrality is so important to a fair global network. There’s no doubt that the vast majority of Internet bandwidth is used to deliver video and content, and the providers of these services would like their data to take priority over other traffic. Viewers of this content could benefit from a more stable connection, higher download speeds, and lower latency.
But just like the first rule of thermodynamics, bandwidth can neither be created nor destroyed, which means that if one service receives preferential treatment, data packets from other services will suffer. Private servers will find that the quality of their connection to users on the Internet will be affected by higher latencies and slower download rates. IoT devices not made by big tech companies may struggle to transfer data, and those using network protocols such as UDP may find that their packets never arrive (why bother sending inefficient UDP messages to Starting from a single device if you can simply ignore it in favor of a flow video).
If these examples are taken to their logical conclusion, the result is that big tech companies control the flow of information, which can negatively impact start-up companies that may depend on high-speed internet connections to deliver quality services. One of the nice concepts around net neutrality is that a bundle of data from Google will be on par with that of a small one-person garage business in the countryside.
An analogy of net neutrality would be the road networks. Anyone with a vehicle is free to use the roads, and only vehicles seeking to use a road give priority to those already on the network (much like how data packets wait until they can be forwarded).
But imagine you’re driving down a road and then a VIP driver pulls over and he’s legally allowed to pull you off the road for his own use (with the obvious exception of emergency vehicles, whose software would be parallel to the system administrators seeking to carry out maintenance). Moreover, the only reason why the VIP driver has this right is because of his wealth because he pays more taxes. Considering such a system would cause justified outrage, net neutrality is something all internet users should be concerned about.
How could governments forcing tech companies to upgrade their infrastructure negatively impact net neutrality?
The importance of the internet cannot be underestimated and governments around the world are now funding improvements to internet infrastructure. However, governments looking to improve internet infrastructure should be careful when finding sources of funding, as the EU may soon find out.
Considering that large technology companies are the biggest users of Internet infrastructure, the EU is potentially seeking to place the cost burden of network improvements on these companies. Although the EU has laws on net neutrality, it also declared that this state of mind could be unbearable in the future and could therefore put the neutrality of the net in danger. If large technological companies have to pay the price for improving the Internet infrastructure, it is logical that they have the right to dictate the priority of traffic because they paid for the network.
It should also be considered that anyone with an Internet connection is already paying for the bandwidth they use. This means that large data centers are already contributing funds to help build new infrastructure, and it is up to internet service providers to raise prices across the board if increases in bandwidth are needed.
Governments around the world need to be careful when dealing with net neutrality, and it is arguably best to raise taxes for everyone if more funds are needed to improve infrastructure. Targeting large companies simply because of their size will not only discourage investment, but could also encourage these companies to create their own ISPs or other networks that will dissolve net neutrality.