The internet has been largely self-regulating since its birth. It has been praised by some as being a wealth of encyclopedic knowledge, while abhorred by others as a playground for online trolls. It’s become the home for big names like Hulu, Google and Netflix, as well as more controversial sites like ThePirateBay and WikiLeaks.
Despite its chaotic nature, it’s been relatively safe from legislation and has been sheltered by free speech protections in the U.S. Recently though, some interest has been garnered when internet providers began subtly altering the service they provide, limiting access to music sharing and streaming video to reduce stress on their networks. When people began to notice the effects of this traffic shaping they tried to fight it, but they had nowhere to turn. Today, it’s a more common practice for larger broadband providers to filter peer-to-peer activity (such as illegal music downloading) and it’s causing some backlash by Net Neutrality supporters – people who believe that all internet traffic should be treated equally, regardless of what it is.
Most Net Neutrality supporters aren’t necessarily interested in whether ISPs stop peer-to-peer filtering; they simply don’t want ISPs to determine our experience on the internet. Keep in mind for a second that providers have always had this power. They’ve just never been challenged on it, especially not through legal or legislative means.
It’s an extreme look of how the internet could be further shaped and fragmented by service providers in order to make a quick buck. The illustration it provides is very poignant though. Large ISPs provide the backbone of the internet. If they begin to filter the internet, it could fuel a trend towards censorship, blocking of legitimate websites, and different service experiences based on the provider. This is alarming, especially for anyone who makes their livelihood on the web.
It’s worth noting that there hasn’t been any proof that major internet service providers are trending towards restricting or filtering with any more granularity. It’s beneficial for them to reduce network-choking (and illegal) peer-to-peer traffic, especially since it improves the quality of service for their other customers. However, if they were to restrict access any further, such as content or URL-based filtering, they could lose a large portion of their customers – at least enough of them to make the ISP think twice.
That doesn’t promise anything, though. While it may seem far fetched, poor legislation and locking in customers with service agreements may cause further turmoil. We’re far off from the Internet Apocalypse but it will be interesting to watch the next few years unfold.