by Suradha Iyer
The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruled out the laws protecting net neutrality in a 3-2 vote last week. What happens next is anybody’s guess.
What is net neutrality anyway?
Net neutrality is a popular term for protective measures drafted to maintain a free and open internet for all users. Internet service providers in the current day scenario are free to choose, block, or throttle sections of the internet, or create a tier- based internet system that costs users more to access different websites at the same speeds as they do today.
What was the 2015 FCC ruling?
In February 2015, the FCC ruled that internet providers were forbidden under Title 2 of the Communications Act from discriminating any and all sites and internet-based applications based on the user’s internet data plan. ISPs have no say in what you use your data for or what speeds you can access that data (unless it’s to manage their networks reasonably). The punishment for violating these laws was strict under Title 2; it gave the FCC the power to investigate ISP-media company agreements to throttle any competitor media platforms.
The measures also kept US Internet Service Providers (ISP) from treating data services as a commodity that could be differentially priced for different users, or completely denied for sale to certain users.
What does the 2018 vote ensure?
The ‘Restoring Internet Freedom Order’ vote moved ISPs from under Title 2, which means that internet services no longer operate under any supervision.
The FCC Chairman Ajit Pai recently commented on the vote that reversed the net neutrality protections enforced on mobile internet services in February 2015 saying: “The internet wasn’t broken in 2015. We were not living in some digital dystopia”. Unfortunately for Ajit Pai, there was a clear need for the 2015 ruling after a number of net neutrality violations by conglomerates when the rules weren’t strict enough. He had also confidently stated that the 2015 net neutrality protection would generate “higher broadband prices, slower broadband speeds, less broadband deployment, less innovation, and fewer options for consumers”; these are the exact doubts that the people seem to have about his 2018 reform.
How is this different in Europe?
After 2015, the ISP MEO in Portugal was under scrutiny for creating paid packages for mobile data. This required a user to pay extra to use excess mobile data for a package of apps – for instance, social media or music streaming services based on the company’s sorting of the most popular apps. This is an act of external regulation from an ISP that net neutrality supporters have slammed. However, it still isn’t complete violation of net neutrality, which applies to only non-mobile ISPs in Europe. Therefore, an extra charge and bundles are just small effects that lack of net neutrality regulation on mobile data can bring. The real effects are evidently more complex and far reaching than buying zero-rated access for all social media in a bundle.
So what will my INTERNET look like?
For the US populace, this loss of protection means that media companies can form alliances with large ISPs to block out all competition. The fear of monopolies is real after the recent broadband-media deals (case in point: AT&T and Time Warner Inc) and the history of their alliances. If not a complete block of competition, users are at least more prone to extra advertising and promotions from the allied apps and media hosts.
Larger media companies like YouTube and Netflix will likely continue to thrive in such monopolistic markets but there will be a significant loss in content as they will likely pay off ISPs to continue distributing their services unhindered. This loss of content is ultimately worse for content creators and their audience worldwide. In a monopoly, smaller, niche platforms are most likely to sell out or go under, as their market reach will be severely hindered once throttling begins.
Whether throttling will begin is no longer a question given the history of attempts, even while protection existed. Throttling is also effective to nudge users into faster plans for an additional fee, which is a clear economic incentive to openly disregard the principles of the internet. The traffic lanes analogy is a prominent way to push paid users into a luxuriously fast internet, creating a class system that is unavoidable as it is pernicious. Businesses could be charged differentially for internet services than individuals, or an excess fee for being online during holidays—the opportunities for exploitation are endless.
There is real fear that if the internet loses its democracy and this tiered system of internet access came into being, it could create a knowledge gap alongside the economic gap which the internet had worked on bridging so far. As The Verge reported Tim Berners-Lee saying after the 2015 net neutrality measure: “We have to add net neutrality to a list of basic market conditions that we protect.”
While Ajit Pai talks of less-policed broadcasting and regulated ISPs, it’s time to ask whether external regulation from the ISPs to the internet access of millions is a fair price.
Washington and California are some of the states that have reinforced their statewide protection of net neutrality in advance of the FCC ruling last month. The FCC ruling can also be repealed with sufficient house support, to reinstate the 2015 ruling.
There’s already been a bill passed through the Senate. With sufficient signatures to consider it in the Congress, the net neutrality could once again be instituted to control the ISPs and keep the internet free.
So if you are a US citizen or resident, I urge you call your Representatives; the entire world of internet is at stake.
Suradha Iyer is a writing analyst at Qrius.
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