US net neutrality all but dead: will there be a global impact?
On June 11th, American net neutrality protections expired, making it easier for ISPs to block, speed up, or slow down access to online content within the Unites States. The issue is of concern to many Americans but if you live outside the US should you care? Some thoughts on the global impact of the US's loss of an open Internet.
Net neutrality of concern to everyone
What net neutrality should look like has been a topic of debate in the Unites States for a long time, but this is by no means an issue unique to the US. Net neutrality impacts people around the world.
Net neutrality – or the principle of a free and open "neutral" Internet - requires that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) offer equal access to all websites: Internet traffic is not discriminated, blocked, throttled, or prioritised. Europe has long been committed to maintaining an open internet for Europeans.
Throughout Europe, the EU's Open Internet Regulation aims to create the same net neutrality provisions across countries, thus, strengthening the Digital Single Market. Regulators monitor and assess traffic management, commercial practices, and agreements in order to enforce the Regulation. The EU's Regulation prohibit ISPs from blocking or slowing down traffic with certain exceptions (such as the need to comply with a legal order). And by emphasising proactive monitoring of traffic, the EU is in a better position to limit the number of violations that occur.
Of course, the EU's Regulation isn't without its critics who claim it is insufficient, abused by mobile providers who sell data packages that favour sites like Facebook and Google over their competitors. Moreover, the Regulation's primary requirement - “providers of internet access services shall treat all traffic equally, when providing internet access services, without discrimination, restriction, or interference” - is open to interpretation by individual country. Nevertheless, the EU is actively working to strengthen its policy.
What net neutrality could look like in the US
In America, the picture looks very different.
On June 11th, Obama-era US net neutrality regulations expired. ISPs are no longer legally required to provide Internet users equal access to all content and no longer obligated to provide equal access at the same speed. There are no more prohibitions against "slow lanes" or the creation of "fast lanes" for companies willing to pay extra to reach customers more quickly.
Ajit Pai, the chair of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates communications within the US (radio, television, satellite, and cable), has argued that rolling back Obama-era regulations and creating more flexibility for ISPs is a necessary step towards innovation, investment, and the creation of more job opportunities. But opponents have argued that eliminating ISP regulations will slow down access to – ie “throttle” – certain sites, encouraging Internet users to move to other sites to get their content, i.e. those like Netflix or YouTube who have the means to pay a premium to deliver "fast lane" access. But not many startups for whom the fast lane is financially out of reach.
They argue, in other words, elimination of current net neutrality regulations will give ISPs the power to determine what consumers see, where they see it, and how quickly they see it. Moreover, a roll back of these regulations could mean that consumers will have to pay more if they want equal access to all sites. ISPs could, in effect, offer various, tiered-pricing plans: the more open you want your Internet access, the more you'll have to pay.
How the US's decision could impact the world
Other counties have their own net neutrality regulations in place. India, like the EU, has adopted strong regulations, ensuring ISPs not take any action “that has the effect of discriminatory treatment based on content, sender or receiver, protocols, or user equipment.” The UK is committed to a Universal Service Obligation, which basically makes broadband access a legal requirement. And, despite heavy online censorship, Russia passed its own net neutrality laws in 2016. (The legislation focuses on non-discriminatory access to content, i.e. content not already censored by the government.)
Of course, what the US does has no legal consequences for these or other countries. But that doesn’t mean their actions won’t impact global conversations around net neutrality.
The potential loss of net neutrality in the US is already raising important questions around the world:
- Could the US be sending a message to smaller economies, especially those with weaker institutions and kleptocratic tendencies, to abandon market protections?
- How are non-US companies hoping to operate in the American market expected to navigate a newly unregulated landscape and whatever complicated pricing schemes accompany it?
- How can international companies reach US customers who don't have equal access to the Internet?
- What right, if any, does an ISP have to tell anyone anywhere in the world what content they can or cannot click on?
So what's next?
As of today, even though the regulations in place have expired, there is still a chance that the US's net neutrality rules could be reinstated. Democrats are working to advance a resolution that will reinstate the rules. And various parties - Internet companies including Etsy, Kickstarter, and Shutterstock, as well as 22 states and the District of Columbia - are suing the FCC in an effort to keep the current rules in place. Some states are even implementing their own net neutrality protections.
While there is much speculation about what the loss of net neutrality in the US could mean, one thing is certain: nothing is going to change tomorrow. The FCC will have to defend its new rules in court and ISP companies aren't likely to change their policies until all controversies surrounding changes to the open Internet are settled.
But we'll definitely be following all developments. Watch this space for more to come.