The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted on Thursday to dismantle the rules regulating the internet service providers (ISPs) that connect users to the internet. The agency scrapped the so-called net neutrality regulations that prohibited broadband providers from blocking websites or charging for higher-quality service or certain content. The federal government will also no longer regulate high-speed internet delivery as if it were a utility, like the phone service.
Net neutrality is a term coined in 2003 to describe the principle that (ISPs) should treat all of the data they are providing to customers equally, and not to use their own infrastructure to block out competitors. However, the ISPs complained that this inhibits competition.
“We are helping consumers and promoting competition,” FCC chairman Ajit Pai said. “Broadband providers will have more incentive to build networks, especially to underserved areas.”
Pro-neutrality groups are already preparing a legal challenge, arguing the order itself should be invalidated as illegal. Online companies such as Amazon, Reddit and Netflix protested earlier this year against the FCC’s proposals for deregulation. They were (and are) worried about proposals that will “destroy net neutrality and give big cable companies control over what we see and do online”.
During his time as president, Barack Obama introduced the Open Internet Order, which required internet service providers to uphold the principle of net neutrality. The FCC voted to repeal these net neutrality protections in a 3-2 vote, with Pai voting in the majority.
“There is a lot of misinformation that this is the ‘end of the world as we know it’ for the internet,” the ISP Comcast’s senior executive vice president, David Cohen, wrote in a blog post this week. “Our internet service is not going to change.”
With regards to how this affects internet users in the UK, 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 means that British ISPs can’t block or slow down data for competitive or commercial purposes. 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.
Even if a repeal of net neutrality law did ever take place in the UK, it is unlikely to have the same effect as in the USA, as the British ISP market is more competitive – we have a lot more ISPs to choose from, so if one decided to slow down access to certain websites, people could switch to another ISP relatively easily. However, in the USA, 40% of the population only has one option for internet service provider in their area, making it impossible to switch.
“We have lots of companies that sell both internet access and online content like TV shows and films,” said Ed Johnson-Williams, a campaigner at the UK Open Rights Group.
“They have an incentive to prioritise their own content as it travels to customers through the internet connections that they control. It’s really important content and services are delivered equally and fairly.”
For instance, he said: “Virgin Mobile doesn’t charge its customers for data used on WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger.
“While this might sound like a great deal, it’s bad for everyone in the long-run. It makes it harder for new messaging companies to build a user-base and break into the market. This reduces innovation and competition.
Disclaimer: The content of this post reflects the views of the author, and not necessarily those of MBGA News.
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