Net neutrality is one of the biggest topics in tech being discussed right now. By the end of the year, the US risks drastically changing its relationship with the internet but, in the end, who will really benefit from all these changes? We’ll explain it all in this article.
The origin of net neutrality
It all started in 2002 when Tim Wu, professor at Columbia Law School, became interested in various facets of the internet. He concluded that everyone should be able to use it as they wished, within the confines of the law. He quickly discovered the difficulty: the more users there are, the more resources are required to allow them to keep using the internet.
Internet service providers, or ISPs, who make the network available to the users, had huge expenses. Consequently, a way needed to be found to finance them which resulted in the emergence of tariffs. The faster the internet speed you wanted, the more you’d have to pay. Of course, each service provider also offers their own range of advanced services.
Tim Wu coined the phrase net neutrality to describe the principle that internet service providers should allow equal access to all the various content and applications available online. ISPs aren't exactly in love with this idea, and periodically make moves to undermine net neutrality.
This fall, Ajit Pai, the chairman of the FCC, has proposed a real revolution in political and economic terms: to abandon net neutrality completely.
What is net neutrality?
So far, Tim Wu’s principles have been adopted and adhered to: Internet users all have the same rights. You can watch any television channel included in your tariff, or you can visit any site. From an economic perspective, you’re a client just like any other. From a legal perspective, you’re a user just like any other, no matter which services or the amount of data you use. Outside of your usage, nothing sets you apart from other users.
This is exactly what the FCC wants to change: internet users will no longer be users just like any other, their rights on the web will no longer be universal. According to Ajit Pai this would allow for new investments to be made and would open the door to innovation as well as the creation of jobs.
Why have things changed?
Barack Obama was a strong advocate for freedom online. In 2015, he implemented a reform along these lines which was a severe thorn in the side of the internet service providers and operators because it harmed their competitive edge. Unfortunately for us, his successor doesn’t share his vision and decided to wipe the slate clean.
The President of the United States has made his position against the neutrality of the internet perfectly clear. Some see it as a deliberate attempt to undermine the achievements of his predecessor since he backtracked on a reform that President Obama had strongly championed.
We’ll know more in December after the vote but, whatever the outcome, it will have an impact worldwide. Europe in particular won’t adopt such measures so easily since the BEREC (Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications) remains committed to net neutrality. In Portugal, the operator MEO is cheating a little, just like AT&T has done in the US, by offering free data for Netflix for an extra fee. It will be interesting to see how the situation develops.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that this matter is all about politics, quite the contrary.
Who stands to gain?
The operators and service providers...
You’ve probably guessed: Internet service providers stand to gain enormously. For a long time, they’ve been dreaming of more room to maneuver. AT&T has more or less already done it with their “zero-rating”, a capacity to bypass the American law by offering some services to users for free and charging for others. In practice, this allowed them to beat their competition to the post as they were offering their own services in the package.
In addition to this, without net neutrality, companies will be able to create packages to facilitate access to certain data, for example, a Facebook package that allows users who buy it to not pay for data when they access the social network platform.
It’s important to note that the internet hasn’t made life for operators or service providers particularly easy. They view communications via the internet (via Skype, mainly) as casting a shadow over their business, and then came along FaceTime and other online voice conversation applications.
In terms of bandwidth, data-greedy applications such as Netflix or YouTube force the operators to adapt by investing more in better facilities.
Below you’ll see what tariffs could look like after net neutrality has disappeared:
... and many others
However, service providers and operators are far from the only ones to benefit from this situation. Many people (the chairman of FCC is at the top of the list) consider net neutrality to be a mistake and they support this project.
Hardware manufacturers (Qualcomm, in particular) view this reform as a possibility to boost competition as they will have more demand from operators which will feed through to innovation in the short or medium term.
Many other companies cite the various problems caused by online anonymity as an argument. Some illegal activities (such downloads of copyrighted media) and other controversial activities could theoretically be made much more difficult without net neutrality.
Winners and losers
Of course, the user is at the heart of this matter as we’re the ones being milked for money. Users will lose their freedom of use and will probably have to pay more on top of it, to add insult to injury.
Many US internet users recognize this, and are mobilizing to fight for their rights. At battleforthenet.com, you can find information on methods that citizens are using to attempt to sway the vote on December 14, including protests as well as contacting the FCC and members of Congress.
It's not just the average user that stands to lose out. Internet companies who have a business plan based on a mass of users will feel cheated. Unless they make contracts directly with the service providers or operators, which obviously requires a financial investment, these companies might find their services as accessible but not necessarily privileged (if you don’t have the Facebook package, you’ll have to pay for the data, for example).
Internet companies are already finding ways to compete with the more established telecommunications providers. WhatsApp and Facebook, for example, aim to capture more users by offering their own prepaid cards.
If the FCC succeeds in doing away with net neutrality on December 14, the entire digital landscape would change rapidly, to say nothing of the impact on our bank accounts. If indeed it leads to more innovation coming from corporations, it had better be worth the cost to all of us users.
Do you think the FCC is right to want to dispose of net neutrality?