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Is the USA about to give up on the concept of net neutrality?

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Is the USA about to give up on the concept of net neutrality?

Alex Helling's picture
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The US newspaper the Wall Street Journal has suggested that the Federal Communications Commission is considering creating a premium “fast lane” on the internet in the United States. The FCC denies this, but the Washington Post too says it has information that this is being considered. If it were to happen it would mean the United States putting a big hole in the concept of net neutrality.

So what is net neutrality? It is the idea that internet service providers (ISPs) and governments should treat all data equally; everything gets the same bandwidth and access, there is no discrimination based upon the user, or upon the type of content or the provider or the equipment that is being used (within physical confines of course). This is considered to be vital for an open internet such as we have at the moment where everyone has pretty much equal access to content.

While it is a good concept it is clear why there would be opposition to it in an internet that is primarily run by businesses; they can’t maximise profits the way they would like. Ideally the ISPs would charge content providers to get a better service, as well as charging the end user for their internet connection.

The proposal is that ISPs will have much more control over what content moves fastest; content providers will be able to pay for preferential treatment. The FCC proposals are clearly not going to completely destroy the principle of an open internet. There is no sign that ISPs would be able to block content entirely – and indeed there is little commercial reason why they would want to. The FCC has said there will be safeguards “That all ISPs must transparently disclose to their subscribers and users all relevant information as to the policies that govern their network;

That no legal content may be blocked; and

That ISPs may not act in a commercially unreasonable manner to harm the Internet, including favoring the traffic from an affiliated entity.”

It argues that this commercially unreasonable clause will prevent any anti-competitive price increases for consumers. A lot depends on what is commercially unreasonable – this could be pretty restrictive if the ISP can’t just let any company pay for better service, or for slower service for a rival. But the chances are it simply means a company can’t slow down a competitor’s traffic or charges sky high prices which would not seem to be much of a restriction.

It would also seem to be likely to be wrong; if an extra charge is created someone, somewhere along the line is going to have to pay. If a streaming service has to pay more to get better service is it really not going to pass that on to customers? Will the ISPs really lower their prices for end users as a result of content providers paying more? It seems unlikely. If there is an unnecessary new charge in the system where there was not before when everything was fine can that really be considered to be commercially reasonable?

Gabe Rottman of the ACLU sketched out some of the possible consequences “If the FCC embraces this reported reversal in its stance toward net neutrality, barriers to innovation will rise, the marketplace of ideas on the internet will be constrained, and consumers will ultimately pay the price.” This is quite a clear result; a big company like google will be able to pay to get better, faster service than a new startup that might otherwise be offering a much better product. The result is that the internet becomes much more unequal.

A more free market internet is certainly not the worst case scenario; that would be much greater balkanisation of the internet through government control, restricting access for political reasons. It would however be a move away from the format that has helped make the internet the greatest tool for free speech, and for change, of our time.

Hopefully the proposal will remain just a proposal. It has a couple of stages to go before entering into force; it is being looked at by a small commission, then a vote making it into a formal proposal. After that there will be public comment.

Debatabase Free Speech Debate ‘This House supports net neutrality legislation’ http://freespeechdebate.idebate.org/debatabase/debates/freespeechdebate/house-supports-net-neutrality-legislation

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