Hate buffering? Love porn? Please care about net neutrality

Everything you need to know about net neutrality and the battle for the net. 

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The internet is at war. Not in the usual way, like when we argue about whether it’s okay to punch a Nazi or freak out about the fact Americans don’t use egg cups, but in a big, important daddy-what-did-you-do-in-the-battle-for-the-net kind of way.

Today, 12 July, is the “Internet-Wide Day of Action to Save Net Neutrality”. Like 1066, but mouthier. Your favourite websites (think Amazon, Netflix, Twitter, Reddit, and don’t deny it, PornHub) are joining together in protest. But what exactly are they protesting, and why should you care?

What is the Internet-Wide Day of Action to Save Net Neutrality?

The Internet-Wide Day of you-get-the-picture-it’s-written-up-there, is a day in which around 200 tech companies and activist groups rally in support of net neutrality. Today, many popular websites will alert their users about the battle for the net.

Yeah, but what is net neutrality?

Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone? Right now, net neutrality is the status quo. It means that your internet service provider (the company that gives you internet access – think BT or Virgin) can’t manipulate the way you use the web. They can’t make certain websites load faster or slower than others, meaning they also can’t charge different companies to treat their sites preferentially. They also can’t block you from viewing certain sites.

At present, everything you access online is treated equally by your ISP.

So is this currently under threat?

In the United States, net neutrality is under threat in a big way. In 2015, new rules and laws about net neutrality were codified by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Now, the FCC has a new chairman who wants to overturn these rules. Until July 17, the public is permitted to comment on this decision – the FCC will reply to such commentary on August 16 and then take a final vote.

A common way of describing the issue of net neutrality is to imagine a motorway where everyone can drive in the same lanes at the same speed. Without net neutrality, you could have a system where drivers who pay more get to cruise down empty highways while everyone else is stuck in the slow lane.

But why does this matter if we’re in the UK?

Though the FCC’s rules only apply to American ISPs, the overturning of the 2015 regulations could change the course of history. The UK currently abides by the EU’s net neutrality rules, but this could change after Brexit.

In April, the Digital Economy Bill passed into law, meaning the government can block any porn website that doesn’t ask users to verify their age. They can also block any “extreme” porn from March 2018. “‘This has implications for the freedom of expression of thousands of UK web users,” said a spokesperson for internet activists Open Rights Group at the time. Many consider this the first large-scale government attack on internet privacy, and are worried about the precedent it sets.

Read more: The UK has now entered a draconian era of porn prohibition

What would happen if net neutrality died?

Net neutrality encapsulates everything that’s great about the internet. We are free to browse and search and play online unencumbered. Our ISPs can’t censor us, nor discriminate against our content, and everything is open and free. Many believe this fight is fundamentally about freedom of speech and democracy.

If this theoretical rights-of-man stuff doesn’t fly with you, in practice an end to net neutrality could mean lots more buffering on sites that can’t or don’t pay ISPs to put them in the “fast lane”. It could mean extra charges on services like Netflix, that may need to pay more to get ISPs to prioritise them. It could mean censorship. It could mean slow porn.

Read more: The best days of the internet are over – now our privacy will suffer

So why does the FCC want to end net neutrality, exactly?

Those in favour of overturning the 2015 regulations (which primarily constitute the FCC, big ISPs, and Donald Trump) claim the rules are bad for business and prevent further investments. Ajit Pai, the new FCC chairman appointed by Trump, has said that ISPs aren’t investing in delivering internet to rural or low income areas because net neutrality rules mean they won’t profit as much from these developments.

What can I do?

If you run a website or a blog, www.battleforthenet.com has banner ads you can place on your site alerting people about net neutrality. The site also has memes and graphics to share on social media.

If you are American, you can send a letter to the FCC and Congress using this online form.

You could also do nothing, but in doing so, you risk the internet as we know and love it changing forever. 

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh