On 14 Dec 2017, the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Republican majority approved a plan to remove the neutrality protections placed on the Internet in 2015, during Obama’s tenure. This plan was led by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Trump appointee who has been lobbying against the Net Neutrality rules all year. The Net Neutrality rules “preserve our rights to communicate freely online” (Savetheinternet.com), and ensure that “internet service providers (ISPs) should not be able to charge different content providers different prices for transmitting data to their consumers” (Guardian). What this means is that the Internet, under these rules, can be thought of as a ‘utility’ similar to gas, water or electricity, monitored and regulated by the government. It ensures an equal playing-field for all content providers (from Netflix and Facebook through to small online tech start-ups), with no hierarchy as to broadband speed for particular websites. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Internet, emphasises that the Net Neutrality rules also ensure that ISPs treat everyone’s data equally, thus implicating this repeal within the wider issues of big data and its exploitation by social networking sites.
Keith Collins lays out the three things that the Net neutrality rules prohibited: blocking, throttling, and prioritisation. Blocking refers to the obstruction of content by ISPs, throttling to slowing the transmission of data, and prioritisation to preventing an “internet fast lane” for those who can pay for premium services, with a “slow lane” for those who can’t.
The decision to overturn the Net Neutrality rules was led by the Republican commissioners within the FCC, and their arguments for the move centre mainly around the promotion of competition in a relatively monopolistic market. Pai has said that “broadband providers will have more incentive to build networks…”, and that a wider variety of service options will be available to consumers.
However, many Americans do not agree with this free-market view, with many Democrats having already called for legislation to re-establish the NN rules, and some having gone as far as filing suits against the decision. The biggest fear is that by repealing the rules, it will become more and more difficult to access content online, and that a hierarchy will be established within the tech world that will defeat small businesses from being able to provide the same quality and speed of content as their bigger corporate competitors. The CEO of Reddit, Steve Huffman states: “if we don’t have net neutrality protections that enforce tenets of fairness online, you give internet service providers the ability to choose winners and losers.”
Collins speculates that as a result of the repeal, broadband providers could begin selling the internet in bundles, similar to television bundles offered by Sky or Virgin. In other countries that do not have NN rules, such as Portugal, in order to access Twitter, Facebook or other social networking sites, you have to buy “premium social media packages”, thus meaning that the social media we all rely on may no longer be free.
At the moment, this is a specifically American decision, and examples of the ISPs referred to are companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon (the company Pai formally worked for as a lawyer before becoming FCC Chairman). However, the consequences are potentially global: the increased lack of competition will reduce the amount of choice consumers will have. The massive companies that claim to be against these repeals (eg Netflix, Facebook), actually rely on a mass of users, making it in their interests to exploit their monopolies: the repeal of the NN rules will enable them to do this far more easily. Facebook has been aggressively capitalising on the lack of NN rules in the developing world, “self-labelling it ‘philanthropy’”(Guardian).
There is no way of knowing how much of a direct impact consumers will face in the coming months, but we can be sure that this is only the beginning of the onslaught that freedom and regulation will take, not just in the domain of the Internet, but in all aspects of government the world over.
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(Photo source: ABC American Civil Liberties Union)