US ruling could make the web a dangerously different place
Net Results: The torpedoing of the principle of ‘net neutrality’ shifts enormous power to broadband provider gatekeepers
Broadband providers will now be able to erect toll gates on the internet, charging a premium to companies that use more bandwidth.
Your Google searches, or those photos you upload to Facebook, might start costing you.
Users of popular internet-based services such as these, as well as YouTube, Netflix, Skype, streaming television services from cable and satellite TV providers, Dropbox – in short, anything that potentially uses larger amounts of bandwidth – may have to start paying extra fees to broadband providers as a result of a ruling in the US on Tuesday.
That’s because a federal appeals court threw out existing rules that mandate “net neutrality”, a policy that requires broadband providers to treat all internet traffic equally, whatever its format, and whether it be commercial or personal.
Brought in by the US Federal Communications Committee (FCC) in 2010, and strongly supported by the Obama administration, the rules were considered a cornerstone of net neutrality.
They were challenged by major US broadband provider Verizon, which argued that for such rules to apply, the FCC would have had to reclassify broadband providers as “common carrier” telecommunications services, like landline providers.
Net neutrality has long been a major concern for technology companies and service providers large and small. The loss of such a policy will be viewed with alarm in a world where internet access grows to be seen more and more like a utility in the public eye, and underlies the business plans of small entrepreneurial companies up to the largest entertainment moguls.
Essentially, broadband providers will now be able to erect toll gates on the internet, charging a premium to companies that use more bandwidth. Companies can either choose to absorb these costs or pass them on to you and me. We may well end up with an internet with fast lanes and slow lanes. Depending on whether a company paid for fast lane access, a website might load more slowly or, for those on a higher tier of service, deliver a service faster.
That could mean companies such as Facebook, YouTube, Google and Twitter begin to charge users for their services. And it could raise fees on subscription streaming services such as Netflix.
It’s hard to see how the cost base of such companies would not be significantly affected, unless the bandwidth surcharge were miniscule. According to the Wall Street Journal, Netflix alone accounts for 32 per cent of peak internet traffic in North America, while YouTube accounts for 19 per cent.
The ruling pushes the internet into unknown territory. It destabilises the business, social and communications landscape that has developed over two decades, ever since the internet began to expand from a private into a public network in the 1990s.
For many people and businesses, a world without inexpensive and open internet access is unthinkable. That’s not just in the developed world, but also in the developing world, where low-cost internet access, via inexpensive laptops and mobile phones, is transforming education, business, money transfer and more.
Net neutrality is also important to human rights defenders and activists, often based in impoverished societies, whose ability to communicate, expose injustice and advocate could be threatened if internet access is regulated by broadband toll keepers.
And it practically goes without saying that the internet is absolutely critical to healthy economic activity, even more so looking out into the future. The growth of the internet into what it is today has led to one of the greatest periods of wealth and jobs generation in human history.
Here in Ireland, the businesses that spanned the broad area of internet and communications technologies have remained most vibrant and made the biggest contribution towards growth in the economy throughout the recession.
It isn’t clear how the federal decision will affect Europeans. You might think that European content could be based here and delivered here, but the internet doesn’t work like that. Data packets sent out from a European location can travel anywhere in the world before they deliver a service just down the street.
Meanwhile, the EU is readying draft legislation on net neutrality – in this case, guaranteeing it. But internet activists are arguing that the draft as it stands is far too vague, especially concerning a proposal that would allow broadband providers to charge extra for “specialised services”.
A campaign that brings together several European organisations, SaveTheInternet.eu, urges that strict definitions be placed on what constitutes a “specialised” service, among other changes.
However important good net neutrality legislation is for Europe, the question remains how it will mesh with the loss of net neutrality in the US. Right now, it isn’t clear whether the FCC will appeal.
If the appeals ruling stands, tomorrow’s internet may work in radically different and dangerous ways, shifting enormous economic, social and financial power to broadband provider gatekeepers.