Some are more equal than others?
Happy New Year! Welcome back and we hope you all enjoyed too much cheese and wine over the festive break! January is often a time for looking ahead, so we thought we’d start with a bang: the future of the whole internet.
Net Neutrality featured heavily in the news recently, thanks to a US Government ruling. It could have a worldwide impact, so this month we discuss what Net Neutrality is and how it could affect us all.
What’s the situation in the U.K.?
Net Neutrality is a founding principal of the World Wide Web. The idea that internet service providers (ISPs) must treat all data on the internet the same, regardless of content. Whether you are watching a video, playing a game, reading an email or listening to music, the service providers do not intentionally block, throttle the speed or charge money for your data going ahead of anyone else.
Currently, net neutrality is robustly protected in the U.K. under the European Union’s regulation on Open Internet Access. However, after Brexit, EU net neutrality laws would no longer apply. It is also possible that the UK could leave Berec, the European regulator on neutrality.
Commentators point to a more competitive ISP market in the UK than in the US where there are only a handful of providers which – in theory – helps protect the consumer once we leave the E.U. Additionally, major UK ISPs have already signed a voluntary Open Internet Code, promising not to not block services or damage the services of competitors.
But with the internet underpinning so much of our economy, and our lives, this could change. It doesn’t seem hard to imagine your ISP offering things like “VIP access to Netflix – without any slowdown!” or “Guaranteed good quality priority Skype Calls for an extra £4.99 month” – creating a two-tier internet or even censoring or blocking some pages completely.
What happened in the U.S.?
The importance of internet access in our world has led to many countries treating it as a public utility, but that changed in the United States at the end of last year, with internet access being reclassified as an information service. This means that ISP’s are no longer legally bound to provide net neutrality. They will now voluntarily commit to principles, which they must disclose to subscribers. Their regulating body, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) made the move saying they hoped it would encourage competition between service providers. Indeed, the States does have a problem with ISP competition; consumers across much of the country, especially in rural areas, have to rely on one provider only.
However, critics expect the result will be higher prices for most customers, prioritisation of paid content over the unpaid, a more hostile environment for startups faced with added costs and special treatment for large incumbents, and an inherent inequality to the content people can receive – those that can pay more will have better access to more varied content. Some advocacy groups even point to censorship and compromised freedom of speech as a possible outcome.
The move is also very unpopular with voters. 77% of Americans supported keeping the existing net neutrality rules in place. So what is really going on?
Some analysts have pointed to a battle taking place between the big service providers in the U.S. (Verizon, Comcast and AT&T) and the content-led rivals on the west coast (Google, Facebook and Netflix). The battle is over billions of dollars in advertising and subscription fees.
The big ISPs are all trying to tap into the lucrative content market. Verizon purchased Yahoo and AT&T attempted to acquire Time Warner. Meanwhile, content companies are increasingly investing in their own infrastructure. Netflix has an in-house delivery network and pays ISPs for better service; Microsoft and Facebook funded the Atlantic Ocean’s highest capacity submarine cable, and Google’s cables already connect the US to South America and Asia.
Net neutrality is the battleground on which these giant companies are butting heads.
What happens next?
In the U.S., changes will take some time to bubble up. Additionally, the rules over net neutrality have changed multiple times in the past decade, so ISPs will likely be wary of restructuring their strategies around this new change. Across the pond, we will have to wait and see what these changes will be.
In the meantime, watch your mobile provider – they are not covered under the same Neutrality rules. For example, EE does not count data used by customers on Apple Music towards their data limit, but does count data used on other music apps, such as Spotify. Virgin Media has plans to overlook the data you use on Twitter, WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger if you pay for certain packages. The mobile data market will be an interesting predictor for a market without neutrality regulations.
What can I do?
As customers – personal and professional – the best thing we can do is vote with our wallets.
You can choose to only do business with ISPs who sign up and adhere to the Open Internet Code.
You can sign the petition to support Net Neutrality
You can take part in the debates and campaigns raging on Reddit
Share these stories on social media with the tag #netneutrality and let’s keep the internet open to all!
24 January 2018