Author Mark Richards

Last week America’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to end net neutrality. It is a decision which will affect everyone who uses the internet – and it could have far-reaching consequences for all of us. In this article, we answer some of the key questions around the decision and look at how it could impact internet users in the UK.

What is net neutrality?

Simply put it is the principle that all content on the internet is treated equally. It means that the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) cannot charge different product providers different prices for transmitting their data. Without net neutrality, bigger companies could pay the ISPs to guarantee faster access to their content, irrespective of the quality of that content. To give a simple example, a big company like, say, Netflix could pay more to guarantee that its content was streamed faster than that of its competitors. Which film would you watch? The one from Netflix that was streamed quickly and without interruption? Or the other one, which mysteriously kept ‘buffering’ at crucial moments?

Is net neutrality the law?

Yes – or it was. Two years ago, under the Obama administration, what was known as a ‘common carrier’ classification was placed on ISPs, making it illegal to ‘throttle, block or otherwise discriminate for or against any internet traffic, including through paid prioritisation.’ In other words, all internet content had to be treated equally: there had to be ‘net neutrality.’

So what happened?

‘Net neutrality’ was always likely to be repealed under President Trump and last week the FCC voted by 3-2 to reverse the rules brought in under President Obama. It is important to note that the FCC voted along party lines: the Republicans voted to end net neutrality, the Democrats voted to keep it. The Chairman of the FCC, Ajit Pai, was appointed by Trump and has been a strong advocate of repealing the previous legislation.

What was the reaction to the decision?

The decision was met with almost overwhelming criticism. Netflix – who we used in our hypothetical example – tweeted:

We’re disappointed in the decision to gut #NetNeutrality protections that ushered in an unprecedented era of innovation, creativity and civic engagement. This is the beginning of a longer, legal battle. Netflix stands [with] innovators large and small to oppose this misguided FCC order.

Twitter also called the FCC’s ruling a ‘body blow to innovation and free expression,’ echoing the sentiments of millions. But right-wing commentators like Fox News have welcomed it, saying that the move will ‘save the internet not destroy it.’ Their argument is that the internet was working perfectly well before President Obama acted to ‘save it’ and that now the internet will be free of ‘burdensome government control’ and ‘micro-management.’

Is that it then?

By no means – as the tweet from Netflix indicated, the battle will now go to the courts where there will be a long and costly fight. Whichever side loses will take the fight to the next level until – in theory – the decision could be made by the US Supreme Court, consisting of just nine judges. And who appoints judges to the Supreme Court? Why, the President, of course…

What does this mean for the UK?

In theory – and certainly in the short term – changes to net neutrality in the US should not have an impact in the UK. According to Ed Johnson-Williams, a campaigner at the UK-based Open Rights Group, the European Union “has some of the strongest net protections in the world.” The UK currently operates under these rules and it is expected to make them part of UK law through the Great Repeal Bill when we leave the EU.

But very clearly the laws could be altered post-Brexit. And in an increasingly interconnected world, where you appear to be able to find a stream (legally or illegally) to watch anything from anywhere, it seems highly unlikely that a programme like House of Cards would be streamed at one speed in the US and another outside the US.

What does it mean for you and me?

Do you remember how astonishingly irritating it was when someone offered you 30 minutes of pathetically slow internet connection for a fiver?

God forbid that we should ever go back to those days. Like many people, I now regard a good web connection as a fundamental part of human life. If I stay in a hotel I could not give two hoots about a trouser press. I do not even care if my room has a TV. But I do want a fast, free internet connection. It is as fundamental as a bed and water coming out of the taps.

And yes, I acknowledge that many people reading this will live in areas that do not have a good 4G connection even now. The aim, surely, is to improve your internet access, not to choose the ‘wrong’ programme to watch and find that your ISP has sent you back to the age of dial-up.

What does this vote mean for politics and democracy?

It is a Monday morning and Christmas is just a few days away so I do not want to drift into Big Brother or Hunger Games mode… But the mention of ‘civic engagement’ in the tweet from Netflix was interesting.

Barack Obama famously won the Presidency in 2008 by being the first candidate to really understand and harness the power and reach of social media. All elections are now fought as much on mobile phones and tablets as they are in meeting halls and TV studios. It is widely accepted that Labour did much better than expected at the last General Election because they made a far more effective use of social media in getting their message out to young people.

If your supporters control people’s access to content and the speed at which they receive that content, then that is a very powerful weapon at election time. And one which politicians will find impossible to resist. It may be that ultimately the end of net neutrality impacts far more on our democracy than it does on which film we watch…