Net Neutrality: Would you like fries with that?
Net neutrality: does it have anything to do with Switzerland? How does it affect us? Is a good thing or not? And what does it have to do with burgers?
What is Net Neutrality?
For some time now we, as users of the WorldWideWeb, have merrily worked on the assumption that when we access content on the internet, we do so with no "interference" from internet service providers (ISP's). Interference in this case means slowing down, blocking or charging for content, based on paid prioritisation. Paid prioritisation is the practice of favouring certain content providers with easier access to their sites, at a price. Critics suggest this will stifle competition and innovation.
In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), heavily backed by President Obama, issued an Open Internet Order. This reclassified internet access as a common carrier telecommunications service, basically a public utility, like electricity, water, gas. As such the providers were regulated and the internet remained “open” and free of interference by ISP’s.
“No service should be stuck in a 'slow lane' because it does not pay a fee.”
- Barack Obama, 2014
There have been violations of net neutrality, including ISP’s limiting access to competitive services, designing plans which only allow access to certain content (e.g. AT&T providing limited access to FaceTime; only users who had paid for the new shared data plans could access the app) and “throttling” data based on various criteria, all of which benefit the ISP – but not the user.
So, What Happened?
In December 2017, the FCC voted to partially repeal this order, meaning the internet would once again be classified as an information service, ushering in another era of paid prioritisation. FCC's Chairman Ajit Pai says reverting to the "light touch, market-based framework" of the 1990's will result in more network investment and therefore benefit those who are on the wrong side of the "digital divide". The FCC vows to remain "vigorous cops on the beat", ensuring that all parties involved do the right thing by the public interest.
Could Net Neutrality be a Bad Thing?
Opposers of net neutrality say that the internet not only managed, but thrived, before Net Neutrality became a thing. They point to ISP’s selling packages which allow users to consume huge amounts of data for very little money, albeit only from the content providers they have chosen: e.g. Vodafone Pass which includes Music, Social, Chat and Video options, and in the US, T-Mobile’s Binge On (it’s all in the title).
And the Case for Net Neutrality?
A growing number of people believe that the absence of net neutrality equals the absence of choice. Whilst, on the face of it, many consumers are benefitting from cheaper content consumption courtesy of the ISP’s carefully constructed offers, they are limited to what they can consume. Paid prioritisation will thrive - in Portugal it’s already the norm. The concern is that both content providers and users who are unable to pay the ISP’s for prioritisation will be left behind. The internet will no longer be democratic or the same for everyone. And that, in a lot of people’s opinion, is the very essence of the internet
What Does it Mean for NZ?
Although, on the face of it, not adversely affected by the changes down here in our corner of the world, we are seeing something like zero neutrality sneaking into the marketplace: Spark and Vodafone already offer deals to their customers based on consumption of certain "big player" content, e.g. Facebook, YouTube etc. And InternetNZ Chief Executive Jordan Carter isn't convinced that the FCC is doing the right thing: "If the next Netflix or Google faces discrimination from the big ISP's in trying to offer their services, then new innovation is just less likely and so over time we are all worse off".
As a nation of innovators with a strong digital track record, should we be concerned about the potential of big ISP's to favour established content providers, leaving the new kids out in the cold?
What About Those Fries?
Burger King recently produced a video which perfectly demonstrates net neutrality, using the Whopper as an example. BK's position on this subject is pretty clear. My personal favourite is the lady at 1.01. We've all been there at some point.