By Frank-Jürgen Richter
At stake could be an Internet where all information is treated equally, promoting openness and free trade; a non-neutral Web benefits a few at the expense of many.
Net neutrality has been a contentious topic around the world for more than a few years now but the truth of the matter is, it shouldn’t be contentious at all. The Internet – though not necessarily intended as such when it was created – has become the true equaliser and must remain that way.
It doesn’t matter if you’re big or small, rich or poor: on the Internet your voice can be heard and then multiplied a billion times over and span the globe. A neutral Internet protects these voices, giving parity to all data, regardless of its source.
So why then, is there such a contentious debate over Net neutrality? Why does the United States seem at times frighteningly close to passing legislation which would destroy that neutrality and create an Internet controlled by a small group of multimedia conglomerates?
The conglomerates of course are partly to blame, along with uninformed American representatives. However, the public is also uninformed about Net neutrality and it’s easy to see how, if these Internet service providers (ISPs) and cable companies have their way, the repercussions could spread across the globe.
If the United States loses the battle over Net neutrality with the ISPs, the consequences in some cases will be immediate but in all long-run scenarios, dire.
We could see startup Internet companies facing ever-increasing barriers to entry, as fast-lane access to the Web is made less and less affordable. We could see streaming giants such as Netflix struggle to provide the same level of service at the prices users appreciate. All of this would increase profits for ISPs dramatically, at the expense of Internet users.
Around the world, the loss of this battle could be used as precedent for ISPs And multi media companies in other countries to take similar stances. If they see that America has become an open battleground, where ISPs can charge anyone any amount for access to the Web, and they’re making money doing it, why not try elsewhere?
Luckily the United States’ regulatory body for the telecommunications industry, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), acted in February to reclassify ISPs as common carriers under Title II of the Telecommunications Act. This would force ISPs to act as utilities, in a way, treating all of the data they handle as equally as a water company treats the water from your tap and the tap of a company’s corporate headquarters.
It certainly is a step in the right direction, and in announcing it, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler spoke out for Net neutrality in a way that few others at his level have ever dared. But the battle is far from over. The ISPs are taking the proposed new classification to the courts and plan to fight tooth and nail – perhaps for years to come – in the courts to prevent such laws from taking hold. The ISPs have immense war chests to take on these litigations, so it remains to be seen just how much of the Title II classification ends up truly applying in the United States.
We know that the ISPs are willing to fight to end Net neutrality, but can America’s leaders be trusted to fight back? Mr Wheeler is pushing the United States towards an open Internet and while he ostensibly has President Barack Obama’s backing, no one knows just how the judiciary will act, or how the rest of the world will react.
To secure a neutral Internet, Mr Wheeler and Mr Obama will Also need the will of the people on their side. At the moment, few are properly informed about Net neutrality, but the more people are told about Net neutrality, the more likely they will be to support it. It’s hard to argue against freedom of information when you have the freedom to research the benefits and drawbacks of Net neutrality for yourself.
While in the United States the opening moves in a war to protect Net neutrality are taking place, in Europe legislators are having a more difficult time taking even those early steps. Unlike the United States – where a powerful federal agency sets the agenda for telecommunications regulations – European regulators have to find common ground between the dozens of nations which make up the European Union and telecommunications companies which serve them.
Currently, the Council of the EUis proposing a two-tier system where there would be a faster lane and a “less-efficient” lane depending on the priority of the services being used and potentially, what you’re willing to pay.
If this sounds like a proposal that goes against the very principle of Net neutrality, it is because it does. Naturally, the telecoms companies across Europe love the idea, because while it outwardly appears that the top speed tier might only be for important services like hospitals or research institutions, the possibility to charge anyone for premium service is still on the table.
The Council claims they want to safeguard open access to the Web but rest assured, should the European Parliament turn their proposal into law, it would be a massive step backwards for Net neutrality. And should the United States destroy Net neutrality first, those battling to protect it in Europe may find their footing less steady than once thought.
In the coming months and years, much more will be said of Net neutrality by pundits in the media and politicians in the houses of government, but one thing is certain: a neutral Internet – where all information is treated equally – promotes openness, dialogue, free press, free speech and free trade, while a non-neutral Web benefits a few at the expense of many.
Losing the battle for Net neutrality in the United States, where so many of the Internet’s most innovative companies do business, would be a profound loss that could start a dangerous trend worldwide. As informed Internet users, it is our job to educate the world and fight to protect information equality just as we fight to protect human equality, for the two are intimately linked.
The writer is founder and chairman of Horasis, a global visions community.