Update: The exact nature of the situation in Portugal was originally incorrectly reported. We've since updated the article.
The basic principle of net neutrality is hard to disagree with. It posits that Internet service providers and state organizations regulating the Internet must treat all websites equally, and must not discriminate in any manner. It ensures the Web remains open and free to access for all.
Thanks to the actions of certain corporations and governments, net neutrality is under threat. Instead of being seen as a public utility, it is becoming more of a product. As highlighted by Quartz, Portugal – a nation among several that doesn't always properly enforce net neutrality – may be a window to a dark future in this sense.
Take MEO, a Lisbon-based telecommunications company. They’re now offering mobile data packages at different prices that give their customers varying levels of additional access to the Web.
If you pay a few euros per month, you just get the basic data package, which gives you access to the web. Pay a bit more, and you get additional data to use exclusively on Facebook or other social networks, or perhaps Netflix more, or perhaps YouTube more, and so on, depending on the extra package you've purchases. A similar system exists in the UK with certain mobile service providers.
This may seem fine to some, but others argue that if you pay for the Internet, why don’t you have access to all of it at equal levels? Why would some things have caps or extra allowances, and not others?
MEO is hardly being nefarious here, but the potential for abuse of this system is clear. If there's a money-based system that defines what access you have to various parts of the Internet, you're asking for trouble in the long-term. Already, several American corporations have been either accused or fined for actually restricting access to certain services or websites, often without directly informing their customers.
Net neutrality – a term first coined in 2003 by Columbia University media law professor Tim Wu – has become far better known in the last few years. Back in 2014-2015, the Obama administration voiced strong support for net neutrality rules, and in 2015, many were implemented.
This April, the newly appointed chairman of the Federal Communications Commission proposed actions that would threaten net neutrality in the US, and in May, the gradual rollback of landmark protections began. At least 22 million Americans have written to the FCC about the issue, largely in protest – but the policy change remains the same at the time of writing.
If this continues, then companies or individuals willing to pay more will get a freer, faster Internet service. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how this could lead to two classes of virtual citizen: one rich in money and information, the other poor in both.
Generally, those that approve of rollbacks are major companies that would stand to benefit from them economically. Those that advocate for neutrality include human rights organizations, consumer advocates, and much of the public – 77 percent of Americans, for example.
It all boils down to whether you think the Internet is a privilege or a right. Do you want to see MEO’s behavior echoed in your country?