Net neutrality is the principle that Internet operators should treat Internet content equally. Thus, for instance, providers such as Verizon, Swisscom, NTT, and others should not throttle Skype or Netflix to encourage customers to purchase packages with faster speeds. Zero-rating is similarly frowned upon; such services allow unlimited (free) use of specific applications or services, without the data counting towards a subscriber’s data threshold.

The Internet’s success lies in its design, which is based on the principle of net neutrality. From the outset, the flow of all the content on the Internet was treated without discrimination. New entrepreneurs did not need permission or market power to innovate on the Internet. 

With the development of new digital services, especially the ones consuming large amounts of bandwidth such as high-quality video streaming, some Internet operators started prioritising certain traffic – such as their own services or the services of their business partners – based on their business needs and plans. They justify this a discriminatory approach by citing need to raise funds to further invest in their networks. Net neutrality proponents strongly fight back such plans arguing that this could limit open access to information and online freedoms, and stifle online innovation.

Net neutrality

Are all bits created equal? Since the early days of dial-up modem connection to the Internet, network traffic management has been used to prioritise certain traffic. For example, Internet traffic carrying Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services (such as Skype) should have priority over traffic carrying a simple e-mail: While we can hear delays in Skype voice chat, we will not notice minor delays in an e-mail exchange. 

With the continuously increasing demand for high bandwidth – prompted by over-the-top (OTT) services such as VoIP and movie streaming – traffic management has become increasingly sophisticated in routing Internet traffic in the most optimal way for providing quality of service, preventing congestion, and eliminating latency and jitter.

Initially, net neutrality purists argued that ‘all bits are created equal’ and that all Internet traffic must be treated equally. Telecoms and ISPs challenged this view, arguing that users should have equal access to Internet services and if this were to happen, Internet traffic could not be treated equally. If both video and e-mail traffic were treated equally, users would not have good video-stream reception. Eventually, this rationale was no longer questioned.

Our Experts

Ms Nathalia Sautchuk Patrício

Technical Advisor to the Brazilian Internet Steering Committee (CGI.br)

Ms Nathalia Sautchuk Patrício works as a Technical Advisor to the Brazilian Internet Steering Committee (CGI.br) A computer engineer with an Msc in Electrical Engineering from the University of São Paulo in Brazil, she is also an Internet Governance lecturer at Anhembi Morumbi University and a lecturer in specialisation courses at Centro Universitário Senac.