One of the founding principles of the internet is ‘net neutrality’, where all internet traffic is treated equally by Internet Service Providers and Governments, ‘not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, and modes of communication.’ (Wikipedia)
Net neutrality is a cornerstone of innovation and free expression, so yesterday’s ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit is a body-blow to all ordinary internet users, but a victory for big business and the telecoms companies. The ruling ends a long running case between leading US telecoms giant Verizon, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) over its right to insist that broadband companies do not prioritise some traffic while restricting or blocking other traffic.
The 2010 FCC Open Internet Order (which did not itself go far enough in the view of net neutrality activists) applies to ‘common carriers’ (such as regular telecoms companies), and yesterday’s ruling means that it does not apply to broadband providers.
This is very bad for consumers and just about everyone who is not a US telecoms giant for the following reasons:
- ISPs will be able to discriminate against content they don’t like. BitTorrent traffic is likely to be an early victim, but it also means that ISPs could discriminate against rivals (for example NetFlix)
- They will be able to charge for preferential bandwidth, which means that websites and services which cannot afford it will suffer downgraded performance. Big business will benefit from this at the expense of small businesses and free content providers
- It further reduces competition among America’s already uncompetitive broadband providers, centralising power into the big backbone providers (who can discriminate against smaller companies who use their fiber-optic cables), allowing them to make more money while at the same disincentivizing them to improve services.
Craig Aaron, president of the Free Press Association, said of the ruling that ‘broadband providers will race to turn the open and vibrant Web into something that looks like cable TV. They’ll establish fast lanes for the few giant companies that can afford to pay exorbitant tolls and reserve the slow lanes for everyone else.’
Although a big blow, the FCC is determined to carry on fighting, ‘we will consider all available options, including those for appeal platform for innovation and expression, and operate in the interest of all Americans,’ said FCC chairman Tom Wheeler. These options include fighting it out again in the same court, or going to the Supreme Court. It is also possible that Congress will intervene. If the FCC can define broadband providers under to the term ‘common carriers’ then it can regain regulatory control.
We can only keep our fingers crossed, as if the ruling stands it’s not just ordinary Americans who will suffer, but ordinary internet users worldwide who will be affected by the knock-on effects of crumbling internet neutrality, and whose own ISPs are likely to be a in much stronger position to demand similar control over their bandwidth to the detriment of just about everyone else.