When the US Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal the rules on Net Neutrality last December, the move sent shock waves across the global tech sector.
For many commentators, the FCC’s vote signalled a victory for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and a crushing defeat for people campaigning for a fair and free internet. IT businesses worldwide were now mulling over the prospect that the biggest market in the world would no longer be a level playing field.
So what is Net Neutrality?
Most users of online services across the globe are largely unaware of the huge implications of the FCC ruling on Net Neutrality and the role that ISPs play in their day-to-day lives. Net Neutrality is essentially the principle that traffic speeds across the internet are maintained equally. This curbs the ambitions of big companies such as AT&T and Comcast in the US and BT, Sky and Virgin in the UK, which could limit speeds to stifle their competition if no controls were in place.
When most people go online their expectations are that every website and service such as Netflix has the same internet speed. The principle of Net Neutrality guarantees there is equality online and largely inhibits big ISPs from slowing speeds to their competitors and then charging a premium, so favouring their own partners’ services instead. Examples of this could be bundled entertainment packages from a mobile phone provider that includes online gaming and movies. The user then pays extra for this package rather than purchasing from the source or a competitor.
But the FCC vote could have far bigger implications than simply slowing down home movies online. For businesses, Net Neutrality is key for survival and without it smaller companies and start-ups would not be able to compete. Entrepreneurs argue that they need an open internet to sell products and services online and gain access to a global audience. This in turn creates jobs, innovation and more competition. Without Net Neutrality, many believe the big ISPs will destroy this level playing field and throttle businesses around the world. As a result, the FCC’s actions in the US are already ringing alarm bells among the UK’s tech elite.
Strangling global entrepreneurialism
For Ian Sherratt, chief innovation officer at Birmingham-based SCC, the FCC vote will strangle global entrepreneurialism online and will be a huge blow to the UK.
“Instead of speeding down the motorway, many of us will have to drive along country roads,” Sherratt said. “New tech businesses come into the market causing digital disruption and they all rely on a super highway working equally for everyone. It’s how Amazon and Facebook were able to gain market share. I have no doubt that businesses are going to find it difficult to survive. This will change the global nature of the internet.
“If you hand over control to a big ISP, everything will be looked at as a commercial proposition. What would any huge organisation do as an ISP without any government controls? You’d simply suffocate the competition.”
Sherratt added that an end to Net Neutrality would mean the rise of a new type of data poverty. Those who have access and those who don’t. Above all, data would be limited to those who could afford to pay: “There’s nothing good that can come out of this. It’s counter intuitive. Anything that manipulates the free flow of information can’t be a good thing.”
Open Internet Access
Nevertheless, elsewhere in the UK many ISPs argue that Net Neutrality as a principle is covered by legislation under the EU’s Regulation on Open Internet Access. This states that all online traffic should be treated equally with no discrimination.
According to Andrew Glover, chairman of the UK Internet Services Providers’ Association (ISPA) Council, existing rules in the UK and EU guarantee Net Neutrality and changes in the US will not affect customers – either individuals or businesses – in the UK. He also said telecoms regulator Ofcom recently declared that it had no concerns about internet openness in the UK.
Meanwhile, back in the US in early January 2018, the general outcry over the repeal of Net Neutrality had achieved the backing of Democratic senators, who had gathered enough support to demand a vote to repeal the FCC’s ruling. Thirty senators were now demanding a call for the Senate to vote on Net-Neutrality rules as this article went to press.
It was a move that gave tech campaigners and journalists in the US and UK reasons for cautious optimism, although Sherratt warned against complacency. “If I want to buy a certain type of guitar I’ll be going online in the UK, purchasing it in US dollars and sourcing it from China. The internet is a global marketplace. The repeal of Net-Neutrality regulations in America will have an impact globally and where they lead others will follow.”