Net Neutrality: don’t freak out yet, but the neighbours are fighting

If you are reading this blog, then in all likelihood you are successfully online. Welcome to the internet!

For most of us the length of time we wait between clicking a link and the webpage opening is short, a couple of seconds perhaps. For the majority of us now, access to the worldwide web has become such a normal part of our lives that we barely give it any thought.

In the USA, after 14 December 2017 all of that could be about to change.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States is meeting on that date to have a final vote on ending Net Neutrality. Net Neutrality is the principle that Internet service providers and governments regulating most of the Internet must treat all data on the Internet the same. This vote would see the rollback of those rules so that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can throttle or block particular websites or services to prioritise their own or paid websites and services.

Getting rid of those rules would mean that ISPs could slow down the speeds of things they don’t want you to see or use. There would be a fast lane for websites or services that pay them or that they own. The big ISPs like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon are desperate for this as it would increase their profits (which is, after all, their central purpose).

For example, Comcast is an ISP that owns NBC, one of the big cable news channels in the USA. If the FCC vote goes through, Comcast could legally make it fast and easy for people who get the internet through them to watch NBC, while slowing down the speeds on shows like The Jimmy Dore Show, an anti-establishment Youtube news and opinion show.

The vote is likely to go through because three of the five commissioners are Republicans who support greater profits and control for corporations. The chairperson, Ajit Pai, is a Republican who worked for one the largest ISPs, Verizon, right up until he took the chair’s job. They have ignored the millions of online submissions against changing the Net Neutrality rules and look likely to ignore the protests.

Republicans in this day and age are cartoon villains. If you can think of something awful, there’s likely to be a Republican who supports it. But should it matter to us in Aotearoa New Zealand when we are not governed by the orange cantaloupe and his insane clown posse?

That’s where it all gets a bit complicated. The answer is probably not right away, but it could lead to some problems for us in the future.

Until recently, even if Net Neutrality was rolled back in the USA, it was not economically viable for our ISPs like Spark and Vodafone to follow suit and discriminate. Only our land based broadband had potentially enough customers to get websites or services to pay for preferential access and the ISPs didn’t control the actual infrastructure.

But the move by both to wireless broadband on 4G networks could change that picture. Right now it is a small part of our internet market. However in that market our two biggest ISPs have almost all the customers and own every part of that network. So if the customer base grows, in time they could take advantage of the dismantling of Net Neutrality.

If that were to happen, our biggest advantage is our Commerce Commission. They have proven pretty active in striking down actions by corporates that seem to reduce competition. An ISP trying to discriminate in internet content and data here in Aotearoa New Zealand would probably end up in court with them.

I don’t believe we should be freaking out, blockading the US Embassy and demanding the withdrawal of our ambassador from the USA (at least not for Net Neutrality; keep this gunpowder dry for the USA’s war crimes). However each step back from freedom of online expression and communication is another step towards a less connected and more elitist human society.

This change will immediately impact on us because the atrophying of content and innovation in the USA that would follow the end of Net Neutrality. Part of your virtual garden would be dying and rotting. This change will eventually impact on us because monkey see monkey do; corporations like our ISPs here will try to follow the profit making models they see in larger economies.

What we can do as New Zealand consumers on the internet is support independent media and content providers in the USA who are leading the charge to protect Net Neutrality. We can pay donations and subscriptions which are enormously important to innovators on the internet in the USA. A small price to support an important battle being fought on the worldwide web’s behalf.


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