The spectre of a two-tier internet of fast and slow lanes hasn’t gone away, and it will only return stronger globally if the US votes to kill it, writes John Kennedy.
We’re used to members of the Trump establishment making right fools of themselves – not for any good reason, but often to dismantle the work done by the previous Obama administration, and assuage private sector interests. Like a spoiled child throwing toys out of the pram in a tantrum.
Ajit Pai is no different in this regard and his newly published proposed net neutrality rules are a bit like a checklist of grievances telecoms giants in the US have had on their mind for some time.
But, when it comes to net neutrality, any changes that happen in the US will filter to the rest of the world.
The truth is that telecoms players have for a long time argued that the over-the-top internet players, from Facebook to Netflix, have been eating their lunch. They (the telcos and ISPs) build the networks but are faced with dwindling revenues from calls and messaging while Google and Facebook et al reap in vast fortunes in ad dollars.
The telecoms industries want net neutrality killed in favour of an internet where they call the shots and internet players pay them fees to provide services at the speeds consumers expect.
The potential result? The consumer will pay and so, expect the price of your Netflix to go up, and those free calls and messages you enjoy on Skype and WhatsApp could be endangered.
Making bits of bit-torrents
There is some logic in it, but not for reasons most internet users would like.
Among the measures in the proposed net neutrality rules that will go before Congress on 14 December are those that aim to reverse rules that prevent players such as Comcast from blocking bit-torrent files. It’s hard to argue with this particular measure from the point of view of protecting homegrown US industries such as Hollywood, for example, because the internet of today consists of a lot of bit-torrent file sharing – most of it illegal.
But, ultimately, the big fear is that the destruction of net neutrality will result in a two-tier internet where the best services will go to those who can pay for them. The rest of you will get something sub-par unless you pay up.
While we in Europe, for example, will sit back and shrug our shoulders at the latest apparent craziness to emerge from America, don’t be fooled – net neutrality has its opponents in Europe.
And the danger is that if it passes in the US and becomes de rigeur there, other nations and economies will follow.
This is because, in various countries, the telecoms companies actually represent a powerful lobbying force and can, with credibility and a straight face, argue how free content and services provided over the internet are holding back infrastructure investment.
Outside the US, in countries with weaker net neutrality laws such as Portugal and New Zealand, telecoms operators and ISPs are offering services that indicate what a two-tier internet system will look like. Vodafone in New Zealand, for example, charges $10 per month for a social pass for services such as Facebook, and $20 for a video pass that gives access to Netflix and other streaming services but not YouTube.
In 2014, the German chancellor Angela Merkel called for the splitting of internet services: one for a free internet and the other for so-called special services.
“An innovation-friendly internet means that there is a guaranteed reliability for special services. These can only develop when predictable quality standards are available,” Merkel told the Vodafone-hosted Digitising Europe conference in Berlin.
“Merkel’s comments are catastrophic – she’s calling for a two-tier internet,” said Social Democratic Party MEP Petra Kammerevert at the time.
Behind the scenes in telcos in Europe, the anti-net-neutrality debate has been simmering for a long time.
At Mobile World Congress in 2015, I saw Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg field tricky questions from senior leaders at mobile operators. While Zuckerberg talked about Internet.org and connecting the next half of the world’s population to the internet, he was asked continuously by seemingly exasperated executives: “Yes, but who will pay for this?”
In 2010, the then CEO of Eircom (now Eir), Paul Donovan, made a passionate argument against net neutrality. In a subsequent interview with Siliconrepublic.com, he said: “What we actually need is a climate that balances competition on the one hand and encourages investment on the other.”
You cannot blame the telecoms companies for wishing an end to net neutrality, as they have shareholders to report to, staff to pay and infrastructure to invest in. They are only doing their jobs.
It is the internet giants that have made billions in the meantime that are worried, but my feeling is that it will be the ordinary internet users who will end up paying.
Do not be fooled. If net neutrality’s killing passes in the US in December, it will only be a matter of time before other nations follow suit.
Our notion of a free and open internet will be turned into fast and slow lanes. Whether it will be retrograde or progressive, only time will tell. But expect to feel a pinch in your pocket.