The Internet is in fact a connection of over 70,000 networks, that exchange data with each other, these networks are managed by a range of Internet Service Providers, content providers like YouTube and what are referred to as backbone providers that just provide connectivity services to other networks.
The internet was founded on the principle that companies shouldn’t optimise the connections of those willing to pay higher fees and thus create a discriminatory service that creates inequalities across websites and services. This principle is generally enshrined in Net Neutrality rules, in some cases supported by enforceable regulations and oversight by a regulatory body.
Across the world, net neutrality is managed in different ways from country to country, and in the main the founding principle is upheld. In the US this is the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the EU Net Neutrality is described in Article 3 of EU Regulation 2015/2120. Some EU member countries, such as Slovenia and the Netherlands, have stronger laws, whereas the UK for example has Ofcom for regulation but has no separate law on its own statute books.
There is some difference of opinion on the merits of Net Neutrality. Major telecommunication companies, along with the usual anti-government-regulation interest groups, tend to oppose it, arguing that governments shouldn’t tell Internet service providers how to run their networks, and that it could hamper innovation.
By contrast, major Internet companies like Google and Microsoft, along with consumer advocate groups, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), argue that Internet service providers shouldn’t be able to discriminate against certain types of connections and content.
Whatever the position it is reasonable to say that the Internet, by and large has maintained a level playing field when it comes to opportunities the world over, to innovate and bring products and services to market.
The US as a Standard Setter
FCC, under the Obama administration adopted strong Net Neutrality guidelines in 2015 when it reclassified broadband internet access service as a utility under Title II of its Communications Act. This was popular with general service providers, because it curtailed anti-competitive practices of incumbent providers. This approach was also consistent to other positions taken in other countries and regulators.
However, just two year later and led by a new Chair, the FCC have repealed these rules, despite more than 40 Internet service providers and millions of regular Internet users calling for it to not do so. This repeal – via a “Restoring Internet Freedom Order”, also ignored substantial technical evidence submitted by the EFF. A challenge the repeal was presented to the US courts in October 2018 at which the Trump administration came out to defend the new position and urged a federal appeals court to reject the challenge.
On Feb 1st at the subsequent scheduled hearing the FCC again defended its decision to repeal net neutrality rules put in place by the Obama administration while Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel says the decision to repeal net neutrality put the agency “on the wrong side of history, wrong side of the law and wrong side of the American people.”
Several internet companies were also part of the legal challenge, including Mozilla Corp, Vimeo Inc. and Etsy Inc. (ETSY.O), as well as numerous media and technology advocacy groups and major cities, including New York and San Francisco. As it stands now, a final decision is expected in the summer this year.
How can the proposed change affect us?
A good analogy on what the loss of Net Neutrality means from an economic perspective would be to compare it to the road system, at the moment we all pay the same road tax by vehicle class and we can for the most part travel on any road we want (acknowledging physical restrictions exist in some case – i.e. road widths and wide loads).
But what if the government decided to take a more granular approach, perhaps on the motorways, they decide to charge variable amounts by lane, with least cost for the slow lane, a higher cost for the middle lane and the largest cost for the fast lane. Essentially transforming the ability to travel based on an additional individuals’ ability to pay.
If the approach went further still and took into account distances travelled to, then the social dynamic for an area would change dramatically with the wealthy being able to travel great distances at speed and the less well off being constrained to a more limited area and likely stuck in traffic for great periods of the day. The model would reduce choice and opportunity for some while increase the wealth of others.
While the government (telecom provider) are not directly interested in the end users, they do have their focus on the big money-making operators on the road network (Internet), these being vehicle suppliers (Amazon), road maintenance and development providers (Google), and possibly even in care entertainment providers (Netflix) etc., if they secure incomes from these, you can bet this will trickle down to the end users in time.
So, if the US succeeds in making this change then it is inevitable that this will ripple out around the world, with it becoming an economic imperative as all big communications and internet corporates lobby to secure the same opportunities to that obtained by those in the US.
Potential to seriously impact all
Certainly in my long and sometimes distinguished career in technology the Internet for me, has been the greatest invention given to the world that has removed barriers, to deliver near equal opportunities to those that can connect, enabling anyone to innovate and build a business, regardless of where they are.
“Open Source” licencing arrangements providing free access to programming languages, application technologies and even delivery environments, further enhancing accessible opportunities to an enormous range of people that otherwise would be excluded.
Net Neutrality has been fundamental for the Internet invention to flourish and a primary reason for why our lives have become so digitally oriented. Removing Net Neutrality can only create an environment and culture that will stifle innovation and worse, start to increase barriers to people of limited means, and we already have too much disparity in the world with how wealth generated via the Internet is distributed.
While the UK is a member of the EU, there exists a strong standard for maintaining Net Neutrality, however when the UK leaves, things at least within this country, possibly influenced by pressure through trade agreements, could lead to a change like that under way in the US. This cannot be allowed to happen.
There is something that you can do
Change.org’s net neutrality campaign was launched in June of 2017, ahead of the FCC’s vote to end the Obama era protections. It marks the first time Change.org had launched their own petition in support of a policy issue and became a central place for people throughout the US to take action with over 2 million people signing the petition.
Get involved, sign the petition and also head over to Battle for the Net and sign up there as well. Both places will provide you with up to date information and ways to take action. This fight is not over, it is imperative however, that more join the campaign to help Net Neutrality.