The long and bumpy history of the battle for net neutrality is seemingly coming to an end, at least for now, with a victory. Following a sordid and controversial campaign to dismantle the free internet headed by former FCC chairman Ajit Pai, a new executive order from President Joe Biden is rolling back the net neutrality repeal that was voted on in 2017.
Back then, there was a lot of news and discussion and a lot of nasty arguing over net neutrality. The ultimately anti-consumer repeal was pushed through under suspicious circumstances despite strong opposition. Now, net neutrality is back on the table, and the effects of the executive order will be felt beyond the borders of the USA as well. Net neutrality has a massive impact on the video game industry and how gamers enjoy the hobby, marking this as a huge victory for keeping games accessible.
Like so many other hot button tech topics, net neutrality is complex and often gets discussed without an explanation of what it is, what losing it would mean and how this affects the average consumer - now that a presidential executive order is restoring net neutrality, let's take a look at what this actually means, in general and for gamers in the USA and worldwide.
What is Net Neutrality, anyway?
Net neutrality is a concept that can be described quite simply, but any real world implementation and application spirals into immense complexity. The basic idea behind net neutrality is that internet service providers must treat all internet traffic equally, and are not allowed to block, limit or throttle traffic at their own whims.
Naturally traffic that is outright illegal is exempt, but so long as visiting a given site, streaming certain content or downloading certain files doesn't conflict with the law, your ISP cannot block access, or put it behind another paywall, or deliberately throttle your connection when trying to access specific sites and content. This ensures the open and free internet is not manipulated by ISPs in order to block and limit content and prevents them from implementing predatory and anti-consumer pricing schemes.
Without net neutrality, ISPs would be able to control internet traffic and censor content based on commercial or political motivations. Your ISP could lock the most popular websites behind an additional pay wall - you either upgrade to a more expensive plan, or have sites like Netflix or Facebook blocked. Your connection might be throttled on video streaming sites unless you buy a "streaming package". Certain informational and educational sites as well as news outlets may be blocked for political reasons to censor and manipulate users.
Net neutrality regulations, in practice, have never been universal "ISP has zero control" type deals. Various opt-in and opt-out features, pricing plans and flexible content regulation based on local laws were always accommodated, and typically net neutrality regulations have allowed for the limiting of access to content that while not illegal, was deemed sensitive to certain audiences, such as ISPs blocking graphic, violent or pornographic content from minors.
Why is it controversial?
The economic and political debates over net neutrality have been around basically ever since the internet has been a thing, however in many countries where the internet is regulated as a public utility, it's always been enforced, with some exceptions. Understanding the concept of net neutrality itself is just the first step in understanding why it's such a fiery topic recently.
Throughout much of the EU, net neutrality is enforced and supported, and in 2018 India passed some of the strongest net neutrality regulations. Net neutrality has become a topic of contention in Canada, but nowhere near the degree it has in the USA, and lacking such a clear partisan divide. On the flipside, net neutrality is not enforced in any way in China, and ISPs are expected to heavily regulate and censor traffic in accordance with the government's draconian censorship laws.
Support for net neutrality comes primarily from human rights groups, consumer rights groups, tech companies providing content via the internet and computer science experts - including those who pioneered the creation of the internet in the first place - as well as any sensible consumer that doesn't want to be restricted and overcharged. Opposition, unsurprisingly, comes from ISPs who'd prefer to exploit a lack of net neutrality and communication hardware manufacturers. Recently, the question of net neutrality has been heavily politicized in the USA causing a heavy partisan divide, with right wing political entities opposing it.
Some additional controversy was brewed by Pai's less than professional behavior, as during his campaign against net neutrality that began in 2017, he repeatedly belittled and insulted those who opposed the repeal - Pai also repeatedly lied about DDoS attacks and national broadband expansion plans.
Why was Net Neutrality repealed?
Money. It usually comes down to this - the ISP lobby in the USA has been pushing against net neutrality, and after Donald Trump appointed Ajit Pai to be the chairman of the FCC, this campaign was ultimately pushed through - in spite of widespread public opposition, and several investigations showing that millions of alleged supporters of the repeal turned out to be deceased persons.
The repeal of net neutrality allowed ISPs which already had reputations of being anti-consumer and predatory in their business practices to become even less regulated, and the USA is suffering from a widespread non-competition problem where many residents, especially in rural areas, have no alternatives when it comes to choosing ISP companies for their service.
Why is President Joe Biden restoring Net Neutrality?
Net neutrality exists to protect consumers and ensure access to an equal, free internet. Unless you want to wring extra dollars out of customers who have no alternatives, net neutrality is ostensibly a good thing - something which is to be expected in a developed, civilized, free country. The repeal, in the first place, is what needs to be questioned, and following the replacement of the administration that pushed it through, more and more of these questions are being asked.
The presidential executive order is not only restoring net neutrality, but encompasses a number of tech related legislation, such as laws designed to protect consumers' "right to repair", among others.
Is this executive order a guarantee that Net Neutrality is here to stay?
Not really - executive orders are powerful pieces of legislation, but they are not unassailable. Various mechanisms exist to overturn or revoke executive orders, and some have expiration states by design upon being issued.
However, for now net neutrality is back and quite safe. While this issue really shouldn't have become a partisan question - not having your internet access limited and censored should be in the interest of everyone, regardless of who you vote for - it did, and as long as a democratic administration remains in power in the USA it's reasonable to assume that net neutrality won't be repealed again.
How does this affect gamers?
This is probably what most of you are interested in - especially if you are not based in the USA. The internet and video games cannot be separated. Even if you are playing offline, the hobby and industry is so terminally online that it's impossible to divorce the topic of net neutrality from gaming.
Distribution is moving more and more into the digital space, and even if you buy a game in a brick and mortar, often times the case will only have a download code inside and no disc. Even if you have physical media, you'll need to download patches.
Games often clock in north of 100 GB, patches are a dozen or more. When playing multiplayer titles or any game requiring a constant internet connection, speeds and data caps can put a stop to play. Hours of patching, lagging in matches - a lack of net neutrality spells this out for many consumers if they don't buy more expensive plans. Things are already bad for those without a choice regarding ISPs and many data plans and payment schemes are anti-consumer even with net neutrality, and the repeal only made things worse.
While most multiplayer games host region-based servers to avoid latency between players, multiplayer gaming is become increasingly global, and it is no longer rare for gamers physically located in Europe or Asia to play together with gamers in the USA - and net neutrality being torpedoed anywhere will affect this process.
The video game industry is also still predominantly based in the USA, and net neutrality affects companies as well as the individual consumer - the repeal would hit the developers and publishers releasing the games we play and love, increasing costs, cutting revenue, impacting development and having other far reaching consequences that would be felt by gamers everywhere in the world.
Net neutrality is essential for video games as we know them today, and this executive order seeking to restore these laws and regulations protecting consumers is a huge win for the hobby, for the internet as a whole, and for the rights of consumers through the USA and beyond.