The notion of net neutrality, the idea that all internet should be treated equally, is under discussion again as the Federal Communications Commission is set to vote on whether to repeal the regulations that govern internet service providers in the United States.
At present, ISPs cannot discriminate one type of internet traffic or data from another, so holiday photos from your mother on Facebook are treated with the same level of importance as this blog post, or a video conference at a Fortune 500 organisation.
However, this principle is now under threat, and the FCC will vote on May 18th on whether to repeal the regulations that force ISPs to treat data equally.
How did we get here?
ISPs in the United States have long lobbied for the power to be able to discriminate internet data, arguing that they want to be able to provide so-called “fast lanes” that organisations can pay to use in order to reach their customers more quickly and more reliably.
The ISPs argue that this would allow them to invest more in infrastructure, whilst opponents argued that it would be damaging to business and create conflicts of interest between content providers and ISPs.
In February 2015, the FCC categorised ISPs as ‘Title II’ utilities, which essentially classifies and regulates them as ‘essential’ utilities. And it is this classification that is under threat.
Under Donald Trump, Ajit Varadaraj Pai replaced Tom Wheeler as the Chairman of the FCC, and this is where the issue starts. Pai is a known opponent of Title II, and has previously held positions on the board at the ISP Verizon Communications.
So what does this mean?
Assuming that Title II regulatory oversight is removed from ISPs, it would open the door for providers to start prioritising different types of traffic. They could then attempt to charge businesses to use ‘fast lanes’, or they could choose to effectively ‘speed bump’ certain types of content that may compete with their own content.
Many have cited the example of Netflix, which has been in dispute with ISPs over the amount of bandwidth that it uses. In 2014, Netflix agreed to pay Comcast after customers reported much slower speeds, whilst last year Comcast threatened to start charging consumers extra due to the extra bandwidth that Netflix and YouTube binges take up, although its own video streaming service wouldn’t have counted against a customer’s bandwidth allowance.
What happens now?
It was a grass-roots campaign that forced a change of policy with the FCC in 2015, and a similar campaign is currently taking place to retain the current regulation. The regulations that would retain net neutrality are also supported by some major brands - including Google, Yahoo and Apple.
However, should the regulations be relaxed or dropped, it paves the way for ISPs to essentially start auctioning off their fastest connections, and slowing down content that competes with its own. Whilst there is no suggestion that such a situation will develop in the UK or Europe at present, it is something that organisations with a presence in North America need to keep watch over.