Net neutrality is at risk

Rebecca Morgans

As the Trump Administration’s FCC moves to repeal net neutrality regulations, we take a look at the implications

Net neutrality is simple; it is the principle that all (legal) content should be served equally, regardless of source. That is to say, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) do not have the right to influence what content is accessible, or to penalise some content providers by serving data at slower download speeds. Why is this important? Because freedom of speech. Because fair market competition. Because equality. Because freedom of information. Because innovation. One of the fundamental principles of the internet is that it provides a platform for all to have an equal voice, and we as individuals have the right to choose our content. 

But the US Government is making moves to jeopardise this principle. On Tuesday, Trump’s recently appointed Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai revealed his proposal to repeal net neutrality laws (Obama’s Open Internet Order) on grounds of competition, ahead of the FCC voting on the policy on 14th December. Pai said that he believes the net neutrality rules adopted during the Obama administration discourage the ISPs from making investments in their network that would provide even better and faster online access.  

Major US ISPs like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon have been lobbying the FCC to revoke the rules, arguing that to do so could lead to billions of dollars in additional broadband investment, thus improving their services. They argue that the internet today has changed significantly from when the net neutrality principle was enshrined. The content served is much richer, with increasing consumption of video content and other rich media on desktop and mobile devices. Serving such content costs more and places a burden on their networks.

Conversely, some of the biggest content providers like Google, Facebook and Netflix are opposed to the move.

What’s really in it for the big comms companies?

Revoking net neutrality laws would give the ISPs the potential to discriminately raise prices for more favourable service levels. They need to increase their revenue streams to fund investments in their infrastructure, right? So, in effect, they could tax content providers to have their data served faster. 

A higher price tag for faster delivery speeds would favour richer corporations that can afford the privilege. This would have a negative impact on start-ups, smaller companies and ultimately innovation. It would create a barrier to entry and would jeopardise the open online marketplace where websites large and small compete on equal terms and where information and ideas move freely. 

They would gain the power to influence what content is served and could slow down or speed up content delivery to suit their own agenda, including creating preference for their own content and services. This gives them the potential to choke off competition. It remains to be seen if these speculative effects become reality but what’s driving them is the desire to increase their cash source and market share. 

What’s in it for the politicians? 

While there are a great many content providers with integrity, there are also a great many with a political agenda. The ability to control content could be used to influence information we are presented with, to serve the agenda of the incumbent administration. Adversaries could be squeezed out of the online dialogue. Minority communities would no longer be guaranteed a level platform from which to be heard. Voices could be silenced. 

What does this mean for the rest of us?

For US consumers at least, ISPs could decide to pass on the cost of delivering richer content to internet users by raising monthly fees or by charging a premium for streaming content and rich media. They need to increase their revenue streams to invest in their infrastructures, right?

But it’s about more than just the competitive landscape and larger ISPs vying for a stranglehold on the market, and it’s about more than just an increase in internet usage fees; it’s ultimately about free speech and choice. As consumers, our right to choose content would be thwarted. The internet currently allows everyone a level platform – a fair competitive landscape for start-ups to innovate, a channel for bloggers to reach a broad audience, a voice for minority communities and social causes - and net neutrality is pivotal to keeping this open.

What effects does this have in Europe?

At first glance, none. The EU has its own laws governing net neutrality. In April, the European Parliament voted to restrict ISPs from charging services for faster network access. It also ruled that mobile and broadband network providers should not be able to block services that competed with their own offerings.

The net neutrality principle is active in British law courtesy of the European Union's Regulation on Open Internet Access, although the UK already had a voluntary system before this. This established the standards by which ISPs must treat data travelling through their systems, and means that ISPs can't block or slow down data for competitive or commercial purposes. Speaking to Sky News, Ed Johnson-Williams, a campaigner at Open Rights Group, said: “The EU's net neutrality rules are some of the strongest net neutrality protections in the world". 

There is Brexit of course. As it stands, the Government plans to convert EU net neutrality rules along with much of the rest of EU law into British law using the Great Repeal Bill. The Government may at this point amend or repeal current law, as it sees appropriate. So, again, it remains to be seen. 

But like it or not, actions taken in the US can, and often do, influence future actions elsewhere. The UK ISP market is far more competitive than that in the US, and UK ISPs may see benefits in following suit and lobbying for similar changes. ISPs that sell both internet access and content will have an inherent incentive to create preference for their own content and will see the appeal in supplementing their revenue streams. Open competition and free speech have been long- held US policies, will this latest move have compromised this?

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