The first video ever uploaded to YouTube didn’t offer much of a hint as to the future popularity of the platform, although it did predict the style of its many successors.
‘Me at the zoo’ stars YouTube co-founder Jawed Karim, who offers his thoughts on the elephants at the San Diego Zoo, ‘They have really, really, really long, um, trunks, and that’s, that’s cool.’ This video, the first of many, is still there.
In July 2006, just six months after YouTube was launched, there were 65,000 videos being uploaded, and 100 million videos being viewed, every day. Today, YouTube has amassed an audience of 1.3 billion people.
All this is despite stiff competition from services created by the well established companies of the time, such as Google and Yahoo! YouTube was able to succeed against its well funded adversaries by relentlessly innovating; by providing the best service they could. This story, one of the meteoric rise of an online startup that came from nowhere, fending off attack from the largest technology behemoths, is one of many.
The fact that companies like YouTube exist today, and have the aetiological stories that they do, has a lot to do with the internet being mostly an open entity. An open internet is one where every individual and corporation has easy access to the full resources of the internet, and the means to operate freely on it. Net neutrality is one of the core components of such a system.
So what is net neutrality? It’s the concept that all data passing through the internet should be treated equally, regardless of what the data is, who it’s coming from, or who it’s going to.
This seems to be a pretty sensible idea.
There has recently been a push to enshrine the principles of net neutrality in law. This has notably been accomplished in the U.S. and India, while there have recently been some major blows to legislative progress in the EU. Tellingly, most of the opposition to net neutrality comes from cable companies and internet service providers (ISPs). Opponents of net neutrality want ISPs and other corporations who control some part of the internet infrastructure to be able to treat different data in different ways.
One key example is that internet ‘fast lanes’ could be created, so that content providers and other websites would have to pay to give their customers the best connection to their services. This boils down to ISPs artificially degrading connection speeds for certain services, or outright blocking them, something which is surprisingly commonplace. For example, after meeting the demands of the major U.S. cable company Comcast, Netflix saw their average connection speed to Comcast users increase by a whopping 50%.
The problem with these ‘fast lanes’ is that in order for a website to compete they would have to pay this additional toll, or have a slower connection to their customers. Established websites, for whom such a fee would be relatively insignificant, could be able to outperform smaller ones, for whom such a fee would be unmanageable. Innovation would no longer become as important for online companies, and startups who are unable to afford access to these fast lanes would face user abandonment due to slower speeds. This abandonment effect is a very real, measurable psychological effect; a doubling in the time taken for a website to load will roughly double the odds of a user abandoning a page.
It’s important to note that these fees could be levied against users as well; you could be forced to pay more to access specific services like YouTube, Netflix, or Amazon.
This arbitrarily preferential treatment of internet data might extend into far more nefarious territory. The spread of certain ideas on the internet could easily be limited, or outright stopped, by governments or ISPs; a commonplace practise in China, for example.
While many of the issues associated with a lack of net neutrality are simply ISPs charging fees to both online companies and users for what is eventually a pseudo-service, the ability for censorship in an internet without net neutrality is a much more dangerous issue. Net neutrality is vital to an open internet; an internet that drives innovation, protects freedom of speech and promotes the spread of ideas. Legislation that enshrines net neutrality goes a long way towards obtaining this idea of an open internet, as well as striking a decisive blow against online censorship.
Every person should be able to use the internet as they want: to educate themselves, to keep in touch with loved ones, or watch a guy talk about how the coolest part of an Elephant is the really, really, really long, um, trunk.
To find out more about the fight for net neutrality in the EU go to https://savetheinternet.eu/.
This article first appeared in The Poor Print.