Everyone deserves a fair slice of the internet pie – don’t they? Well, it’s an argument that’s up for discussion in the closing months of the year as rules enacted by the Obama administration – designed to ensure equal access to the internet for all – are facing drastic reform.
Net Neutrality classes access to the internet as the digital equivalent of an essential public utility – like electricity – with equal rights for all. The regulations prevent internet service providers (ISPs) such as AT&T and Verizon from speeding up, slowing down or blocking content, applications or websites. Without these rules, ISPs could theoretically control how internet access is delivered, providing a preferential service to those who can afford to pay, while leaving others languishing in the slow lane.
…And why does the government want to repeal it?
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman, Ajit Pai, has proposed a plan to dismantle these so-called ‘net neutrality’ regulations, opening the door for ISPs to vary fees on a customer-by-customer basis.
Mr Pai said in a statement: ‘Under my proposal, the federal government will stop micromanaging the internet. Instead, the FCC would simply require internet service providers to be transparent about their practices so that consumers can buy the service plan that’s best for them.’
Pai, who was appointed by Trump, has overseen the repeal of several other regulations governing broadcasters and news agencies that were intended to protect public interests – including a rule limiting any organisation from controlling broadcasts that are capable of reaching more than 39 percent of US homes.
Will pay-to-play favour established companies?
The announcement has sparked a row over free speech, as opponents of the plan fear the dominant telecom companies will increase their power base at the expense of smaller innovation-based businesses, arguing that only big players will be able to afford to pay for preferential speeds. Consumers may also feel the pinch as the cost of streaming content from services like Netflix could sky-rocket.
Advocates of the repeal counter that the current rules limit consumer choice and prevent ISPs from experimenting with new business models. AT&T, among others, contends that this kind of heavy-handed regulation represents unnecessary government intervention that will restrict the scope of ongoing investment, resulting in a lower-quality service for all over the long-term.
Internet access companies believe it’s a lot of fuss over nothing, claiming that customers can trust them to act in good faith, continuing to provide good service and voluntarily sticking to the principles of Net Neutrality. They argue that, as in any free market, competition will hold providers to account.
It’s fair to say, though, that if carriers are charging more for high-speed services, it’s likely that bigger costs will hit consumers’ pockets at some point, though the FCC claims that companies will still be covered by laws governing anti-competitive behaviour.
This latest proposal will probably be played out in court as companies like Google and Facebook are expected to lead the resistance to Pai’s planned reform. It remains to be seen which argument will prevail.