Why is net neutrality a thing

What is net neutrality? Or: Why the free and open Internet is in danger

In one way or another, the Internet doesn't work very differently from traditional mail. All content, whether it's a website or email, is packaged in similarly sized packages. The sender writes his (IP) address and that of the recipient on the outside. The finished package is delivered to the post office, which delivers it to the address that is written on it. In Germany, Post and Telecom were even the same institution until 1994: the Deutsche Bundespost.

But these similarities are increasingly being undermined. Instead of just transporting parcels, Internet providers want to open them first, inspect them and, depending on their content, treat them differently. Funny cat video? Costs extra. Video telephony with the family? Not allowed, the call will not be delivered. Already the twenty-third package this month? That is getting at a snail's pace and will not be delivered until next week. Not her package at all, but on behalf of the sick friend? Not allowed, it has to appear at the post office itself. Uih, erotic content for the lover? But we have to blacken the explicit passages.

What sounds absurd is unfortunately becoming more and more reality. Until a few years ago, providers - just like the post office - were simply deliverers of parcels. This principle is called net neutrality - the equal treatment of data packets on the Internet, regardless of sender, recipient or content. Internet companies increasingly want to give up this neutrality and take direct influence on the content sent. Because they want to make more money.

The internet says it was invented to survive a nuclear war. For this purpose, the builders designed the network decentrally, every computer could connect, connect to every other computer and exchange any content. This openness was a prerequisite for the success of the global network. Because routers and providers simply passed on content blindly, the real intelligence arose at the ends of the line. You didn't need permission for new ideas, you just put them into practice and anyone on the Internet could immediately access them. All of today's internet giants emerged as small projects, and the openness of the network gave everyone the chance to become the “next big thing”.

The neutrality of the network was also the reason for the many positive social effects. Suddenly, all of human knowledge is just a click away. People can bypass government censorship and exercise their right to freedom of expression. We can communicate more easily with one another, generate knowledge, learn new things and take part in social, cultural and political debates. And many companies got rich with new business models.

Internet providers are jealous of this. The press publishers recently fought for an ancillary copyright law in order to blatantly get a piece of Google's cake. Telekom also wants money from Google, as boss René Obermann frankly admits. And if the Internet giant from California doesn't give Deutsche Telekom some money on its own, it can't guarantee that Google's services will also work smoothly in Germany. Then the YouTube videos could jerk. Blackmail? Business model.

This is by no means an absurd horror scenario, but rather a bitter reality. Above all in the mobile Internet, which is becoming increasingly important than landline connections, violations of network neutrality are the order of the day. Almost all network operators forbid the popular Skype program, which you can use to make free calls worldwide. Because customers should prefer to pay the expensive in-house telephony tariffs, data packets from Skype are technically intercepted and thrown away. The same thing happens with instant messaging services, because customers should rather pay a dozen cents for an SMS.

But even with Internet connections via cable or DSL, the providers are increasingly intervening in the content of their customers. If too many files are exchanged via file sharing, regardless of whether they are movies or research data, some cable providers simply slow down their customers' Internet connections. Telekom has now also announced plans for this, and other providers will certainly follow suit. Instead of promoting network expansion and investing in the future with fast Internet connections, providers are going the opposite way and making existing Internet connections slower.

Violations of net neutrality can, however, also appear as a supposed bonus. There are tariffs worldwide with which you can surf on Facebook for free despite the expired data volume. In some tariffs, Telekom does not include the data volume of the music streaming service Spotify or its own Internet TV offers. However, giving preference to one provider inevitably means discrimination against all others. This means that the network is no longer neutral, but prefers some content and disadvantages others. In addition, this practice takes the often put forward network bottlenecks ad absurdum, because you actually have enough capacity, you just don't want to give it to everyone.

A form of net neutrality violation that should not be neglected is the control and suppression of undesired content. Providers in Germany and the USA have already blocked websites for their customers who express themselves critical of the company or on which the in-house union has organized itself in an industrial dispute. The suppression of alleged copyright infringements or for the protection of minors is very widespread. Once established, however, any censorship option is also extended to other content, as each example shows.

The basic problem with any evaluation of data streams based on their content is that the providers first have to know the content. Deep packet inspection technology is used for this, with which every accessed website or email is examined to see whether it contains undesired content. This is partly identical hardware as in the Internet rogue states China, Iran or Syria, which use this technology for surveillance and censorship. The difference between the Internet in Germany and China is only one configuration file.

Net neutrality is a valuable asset and is only made possible by the Internet, which we know and which offers so many possibilities. Providers are not allowed to dictate to customers who can access information and under what conditions. Users must be able to confidently determine how they use the network. Instead of blocking, throttling, discrimination and blocking, we need an open, real network.

This introductory article is from Newthinking Magazine, due out May 6th. The slightly shortened audio version was recorded by Karina Fissguss in cooperation with bln.fm and is also available under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0, other uses please inquire at [email protected]

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About the author


Andre has been with netzpolitik.org since 2008 and has been a permanent employee since 2012. He is mainly concerned with investigative research. Andre studied social sciences at the Humboldt University in Berlin and obtained a bachelor's and master's degree on network policy topics. He is a founding member of the digital society, society for freedom rights and netzpolitik.org, member of the Chaos Computer Club and observer at European Digital Rights. He also works as a system administrator, e.g. he set up the first Frag Den Staat mail server and enjoys using it. And something about treason. || Contact:Email, OpenPGP, Twitter, Bitcoin.
Published 04/23/2013 at 1:14 PM