Net neutrality has been in the mainstream news recently, and rumours of weakened net neutrality, but a lot of people may have missed it (or it just hasn’t registered because it sounds a bit boring), but there are concerning developments in net neutrality that could have a huge negative effect on businesses and consumers. It’s worrying, has potentially profound implications for the future of the internet and why we should, in the event, eschew BastardBroadband, embrace Cool+GroovyNet and feel sorry for Dafyd and Rhiannon.
On 14th December (yesterday at the time of writing) the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the USA voted three to two to weaken net neutrality rules for US internet service providers (ISPs). Under previous rules, formalised by Barack Obama (please come back), ‘net neutrality’ ensured that ISPs couldn’t favour one company’s services over another. For example, if this was the UK, imagine that BT could restrict, or ‘choke’, Netflix to end users in favour of Amazon Prime, or that Virgin choked Google’s YouTube in favour of Vimeo.
What is it?
The BBC used a good analogy to imagine this like a road. Let’s use the internet’s original nickname of ‘the information superhighway’. There are four lanes in this superhighway that run between online services like Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Netflix, and your computer/smartphone. The ISPs own the superhighway. At the moment, all four lanes have the same speed limits and every company’s services are allowed to go at the same speed – no one company’s services are favoured over others giving us all equal access to all services at all times. This is net neutrality. But, if we saw an end to net neutrality it would mean that some lanes on the superhighway could have lower speed limits, other lanes could be faster and some lanes could even have total roadblocks.
Net neutrality makes sure that the internet remains accessible and open to all companies and consumers and any erosion to this could have consequences to businesses and end users. And, obviously, it’s all down to money.
Impact on customers
Scenario: Steve and Gloria are neighbours, they say ‘hiya’ to each other, chuck their kids’ footballs back over the hedge when they’re belted over and take in parcels from Amazon for each other when the other’s not in. Now, let’s say that a particular ISP, called BastardBroadband, chokes YouTube unless Google agree to pay a higher premium for a faster lane on the superhighway. If Google refused, it could mean that Steve would receive a poorer experience from YouTube because he has a contract with BastardBroadband. However, Gloria has a broadband contract with Cool+GroovyNet who haven’t choked YouTube and therefore can enjoy her usual HD YouTube experience. Steve’s peeved, Gloria’s unaffected.
What it could also mean, from a business point of view, is that the bigger, richer companies will have the means to pay these premium fees to ISPs which could make it harder for fledgling companies to compete. It could mean a severe restriction on innovation, new tech developments and entrepreneurial ideas due to young companies not being able to pay exorbitant ‘fast lane’ fees to greedy ISPs. This is bad for business and for consumers. Love it or hate it, Mark Zuckerberg would not have been able to launch Facebook from his college dorm and kick the giant that was MySpace into touch with a better social platform if it weren’t for net neutrality. So, if you come up with a brilliant idea to blow YouTube out of the water are you really going to be able to compete with Google’s billions to get your video service seen by consumers? Not unless you’re Murdoch.
All’s fair in love and war
So where’s the money coming from? If FabFlix agree to pay a premium to BastardBroadband to continue the TV/movie streaming service their subscribers are used to, will they absorb this cost and take it out of shareholders’ profits? Not likely. The FabFlix subscription rates will go up and we’ll end up paying for it.
While net neutrality in the US has not been completely taken away, only weakened, it does mean that ISPs can now speed up or slow down certain services and charge consumers for the features they want to access. However, ISPs must disclose which services are affected and be transparent about their practices.
The FCC have argued that weakening net neutrality will encourage competition, fuel innovation and enable ISPs to improve connections, especially to people in rural areas. It will also allow consumers to ‘shop around’ and choose the ISPs that provide the services they want to use. If we think back to poor Steve and BastardBroadband, he could resume his accustomed YouTube service if he pays BastardBroadband more money. This is always an option for those who can afford it, but it wouldn’t work for Dafyd and Rhiannon who live miles out in the sticks in the middle of the Brecon Beacons where only one ISP is providing broadband to the area. Not to mention Rhiannon’s idea for the new Facebook. They’re stuffed.