In December 2017 the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to repeal a set of regulations that govern what has become known as net neutrality.
The decision has been seen as a victory for Internet Service Providers (ISPs), who control end user’s access to the Internet, and a defeat for campaigners of a free and fair Internet.
The decision has the biggest impact for those living in the United States but it could affect people in the UK. To help you understand what this decision actually means and what it could mean for UK consumers and businesses we’ve put together the following overview.
What is net neutrality?
Net neutrality is the principle that individuals should be able to freely access all content and applications on the Internet equally without ISP’s discriminating against specific online services or websites. Put simply, it is the principle that the company that connects you to the Internet does not get to control what you do on the Internet.
Net neutrality has so far been safeguarded by governmental regulations that stop private operators abusing their power. If you take away those regulations, then there is nothing to stop ISPs from slowing the speeds of your Internet to services such as Netflix and then charging you a premium if you want to watch them at the same quality as their favoured partners.
Why has this happened?
The US doesn’t have a competitive market for Internet and telecommunications companies. The FCC has been trying to find ways to increase competition among the biggest companies such as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon. It believes that by scrapping net neutrality it can do that.
The FCC's chairman, Ajit Pai, argues the changes will ‘foster innovation and encourage ISPs to invest in faster connections for people living in rural areas’.
Will this affect small businesses and start-ups?
If the repeal goes through it will take away open and free access to the Internet for small businesses. Data prioritisation could become expensive. Therefore, if a business cannot afford to pay for this premium service to access its target audience, it will lose the Internet as primary channel to reach them.
Additionally, larger companies, particularly media giants, could control what content is shared with everyone who is online. This could marginalise many small businesses and groups who were traditionally able to leverage the ‘level playing field’ of the Internet to raise awareness.
What does this mean for the UK?
Net neutrality is protected in the UK under the European Union’s regulation on Open Internet Access. The changes to net neutrality rules in the US do not have an immediate impact on customers of UK ISPs. Whilst our net neutrality is currently protected, we are seeing some evidence of provider control shaping smartphone packages.
EE for example will give customers free Apple Music subscriptions and won’t count the data you use streaming music through Apple Music. But for Apple’s competitor Spotify, EE counts streaming their music towards your data. This isn’t the same as deliberately slowing down the speeds of your Internet to certain services but it’s a step towards restricting the access you have.
Will Net Neutrality disappear in the UK?
Brexit is an important consideration. To begin with, all existing EU legislation will be copied across into domestic UK law to ensure a smooth transition on the day after Brexit. That includes Open Internet Access rules. But it’s not inconceivable that UK Parliament could look to ‘amend, repeal and improve’ these rules post Brexit, should that be desired.
I feel strongly, how do I support Net Neutrality?
File a written complaint to the FCC
Make a donation to those organisations fighting the ruling.
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