The online world’s popular principle of net neutrality suffered a major setback in the United States. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted 3-2 to repeal an Obama-era net neutrality rules that imposed restrictions on U.S. broadband providers to prioritize one service’s data over another.
What exactly is net neutrality?
For starters, it’s a principle that ensures ISPs don’t interfere with how internet users consume data via their connections. It believes and advocates that ISPs be technically restricted from influencing the behavior of internet consumers. It also ensures there’s a level playing field for media platforms, and that user choice is not affected by the availability of one service. In simple terms, net neutrality emphasizes that ISPs prevent one service from loading faster or slower than another on the basis of the nature of content being consumed.
The US development, in the Indian context
The US FCC voted to repeal net neutrality rules introduced under President Barack Obama undermining free and open internet to consumers. The immediate ramifications of the ruling would mean that ISPs in the U.S. can now speed up or slow down data for one service over another. It also allows service providers to charge consumers according to the service they use, rather than making the whole world wide web available as an open platform. The changes in net neutrality rules effectively means death of the open web as we know it today.
FCC chairman Ajit Pai celebrated the rollback by saying it will “help consumers and promote competition.” The immediate change could lead to one service provider offering high speed while accessing Netflix, but lowering speed on Hulu. The vice versa would be relevant too in the case of another service provider. The change in net neutrality rules don’t seem to encourage competition, but rather eliminates competition when Americans select their next ISP.
The end to open internet
The ruling is widely seen as the way to make internet less open and accessible. The decision is already facing legal challenges with New York attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, announcing his plans to file a lawsuit challenging FCC’s decision. Schneiderman is also joined by attorneys from other states including Washington, California and Delaware.
What US can learn from India?
The end to net neutrality rules compromising fair competition among ISPs was avoided by India in 2016. A ruling in November 2017 enforced that ISPs have no authority to speed up or slow down access to particular websites or services. It also made it clear that ISPs can’t market bundles of websites or applications. The ruling set a strong precedent for governments around the world when it comes to advocating and offering fair and open internet to people.
The debate around net neutrality in India originated with Facebook’s launch of Free Basics, a zero-rated programme that makes Facebook available for free in partnership with telecom service provider. The operator, in effect, will charge users whenever they access internet outside of Facebook. The programme introduced Indians to Facebook but clearly violated the founding principles of web which weighed every service or website on the same scale.
Free Basics and its closed access to internet led to activists calling for implementation of net neutrality rules in the country. TRAI, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, came up with a draft recommendation that effectively ensured that there is no change in internet access regardless of your service provider or data pack that you are subscribed.
While TRAI established a strong policy for net neutrality, it’s important to know how we got there. The policy was drafted primarily on the basis of strong advocacy from people and organizations. Efforts by entities such as SaveTheInternet.in and many vocal advocates of internet freedom led to policy formation that supports an open internet. The campaign highlighted how abuse of net neutrality by tech companies such as Facebook led to the abuse of power, and killed freedom of speech. The positive dialogue led to creation of draft in 2016 and a formal ruling this year totally supporting same internet access across service provider.
In U.S., the FCC argues that there are very few ISPs in certain states and net neutrality restricts them from innovating or investing in faster connections. But the argument undermines the principle which differentiates between connectivity and content. “If the US allows the internet to become like the old cable TV model — with the same firms controlling the cables and the content — competition in both markets will suffer,” Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of World Wide Web, wrote in a Medium post early this week.
While FCC has voted in favour of recalling net neutrality rules, it has also argued that ISPs will have to disclose when they throttle data or prioritise traffic on their service. The recall is similar to President Trump announcing his government’s plan to withdraw from Paris Climate change agreement. While the government has withdrawn, states can continue to cut down on their emissions leading to a positive impact on the environment.
Similarly, the states can argue that net neutrality recall affects the distribution of fair internet access and even go to court and file lawsuit against FCC, which is already happening. The activists, on the other hand, can write to their elected representatives to argue in favor of net neutrality and effectively lead to reinstating the existing rules. The recall is not the end of internet, but basically serves as a new beginning for the argument that web is open and cannot be discriminated.