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New laws mean ISPs must treat all data equally - but not everyone's happy

The fight over net neutrality in the US now seems to be over, with internet activists celebrating victory after a long fight. But what is net neutrality, why does it keep coming into the news, and what does it mean for consumers?

What is net neutrality?

In a nutshell, net neutrality is the principle that ISPs (internet service providers – the people you pay money to for internet access) shouldn’t be able to differentiate between traffic on their networks. This means that they have to transport each bit of data from their servers to your computer in exactly the same way – not giving preference to, say, a video from YouTube, over one that comes fromNetflix.

What does this mean for me?

This means that you only pay a single fee for each bit of data that you use - and that you never have to pay more for, say, accessing bandwidth-intensive content like streaming video. David Meyer, the European correspondent for tech site Gigaom, explain that the new laws mean that “consumers will continue to be in control of their choices."

“Without this, you'd end up with your internet provider steering you towards certain services because of commercial deals. The playing field should now be kept level.”

Meyer also notes that although ISPs sometimes say that net neutrality will mean higher costs for consumers  because they can’t charge more for bandwidth-intensive content, the UK is such a highly competitive market that it would be “very difficult for providers to jack up their prices without losing customers.”

How is European net neutrality different to the US?

In the US, recent attempts to enshrine net neutrality in legislation have failed and ISPs like Comcast and Verizon have begun charging certain content providers more to handle their data – with Netflix being a notable example.

The ISPs claim these tolls are necessary to pay for the extra data they’re handling, but net neutrality advocates say it’s just the thin end of the wedge, and that paying for better connections opens the way to all sorts of exploitative practices including, perhaps, the creation of a ‘two-tiered’ internet.

Meyer says that both consumers and internet companies will now be much better off in the EU than the US. “In the US, operators are free to degrade services that don't suit their business interests, which is not in the interests of the consumer. New entrants to the market can also be disadvantaged there because they don't have enough money to pay ISPs to deliver their services at a reasonable quality."