US FCC ruling on Net Neutrality step back in time
Net Neutrality as it existed since 2015 has now officially been repealed in the US. The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has overturned the Obama-era rules and gone back to no regulation around Internet companies and their practices. The repeal of these rules means that in theory, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in the US are now no longer restricted from creating special pricing for access to certain websites or discriminating against other websites.
Net Neutrality, in simple words, means that an ISP cannot throttle access to a service or charge extra for consumers to access a website. For instance, under strict Net Neutrality rules, an ISP charging extra for access to Netflix or Facebook or Twitter is not allowed. But the repeal of such rules opens up a whole new and dangerous world for the internet in the US.
Of course, the repealing of Net Neutrality in the US does not have much impact in India, which for now has taken a strong pro-Net Neutrality stance. India’s regulator, TRAI in particular, has ruled that ISPs cannot have discriminatory pricing for different services. But the US decision does highlight the kind of dangers that an open, free internet faces both in developed and developing nations. What is also evident is that the US FCC repealed the rules, despite a large public outcry against the decision. In fact, protestors were present outside the FCC building even as the vote took place.
Net Neutrality is a crucial aspect in keeping the internet open and free and ensuring a level playing field for all players. In a market like the US, where a majority of the world’s biggest technology companies are based, a decision like this will have a negative impact on the growth of future tech innovations. If ISPs in the US do decide to go for discriminatory pricing, the internet could be end up being splintered, and some players will definitely lose.
For now, major ISPs like Comcast and AT&T say they do not plan to throttle the internet, but the dangers are already present. The lack of Net Neutrality in one of the world’s most important tech markets means that an online startup might not have the same chance of succeeding as an established
player, which can afford to pay for higher speeds. It also means ISPs which have their own apps and content services, can try and unfairly promote these services over those by their rivals. Even in theory, this is a dangerous precedent which has been set.
For the rest of the world, when considering internet governance systems, the current US system of zero regulation can no longer be seen as ideal. Especially for developing nations like India, which often look to other developed nations when considering future laws. In contrast, the European Union has a system, which is much more in favour of Net Neutrality and much more balanced. The EU rules which were put in place in 2016 prohibit ISPs from blocking or slowing down traffic or creating zero-rating services.
Some countries like Netherlands have even stricter rules on Net Neutrality than rest of EU. For now, the US FCC ruling is clearly a step back in time. The full impact of this decision is yet to play out, and there’s no doubt it will be closely watched by the rest of the world.
Shruti Dhapola writes on all things Tech for the Indian Express. She tweets at @ShrutiDhaps