Net neutrality – the principle that internet service providers treat all internet traffic equally – is under threat. It sounds technical, but it could affect our basic rights to freedom of expression and access to information.
Strong net neutrality rules guarantee that data streaming from larger websites, such as Facebook, will not be prioritised over the data from smaller sites.
If those rules are weakened, it means that smaller, niche or emerging companies, simply won’t be able to get their data to customers easily – meaning our ability to access a diversity of content is at risk.
Over the last few years, it has become one of the key battlegrounds in digital rights.
The US Battleground
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After being introduced in 2015 under the Open Internet Rules, net neutrality required all companies to treat all data equally, regardless of its origin or content. Providers were unable to give preferential treatment to selected sites and services.
However, this all changed in December 2017, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted 3-2, along party lines, to repeal this policy, despite the US Senate voting to preserve it.
On Thursday, United States officials repealed these rules, allowing net providers to treat data travelling through their networks however they wish.
For example, they can now prioritise data streaming from Netflix over all other websites, slowing down user access to say, RightsInfo, to allow others to binge Black Mirror for the twentieth time.
Suing for Freedom
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For certain states, this may not be the end of the matter. In January, 22 States sued the FCC for axing net neutrality.
Two months later, Washington passed the first state-level law to prohibit the prioritisation of online content. In tandem, executive orders have been passed by the governors of New York and Montana to impose net neutrality requirements on all ISPs with state contracts.
A bill with similar rulings was presented to Colorado’s Senate and rejected in late April. California’s Assembly is currently examining proposals for their own state-level net neutrality.
Such an outcome also limits our ability to access smaller websites and companies who simply cannot afford to pay the desired fees.
Meanwhile, 176 members of the United States’ House of Representatives have signed a petition to necessitate a vote on restoring net neutrality. On Tuesday, the first House Republican, Mike Coffman of Colorado, added his signature.
Do We Have Net Neutrality in the UK?
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The European Union’s net neutrality law is outlined in Article 3 of EU Regulation 2015/2120. This law is set to be enshrined into British Law following Brexit. However, numerous loopholes have been found to exist within its framework, prompting countries such as Slovenia and the Netherlands to adopt their own, stronger interpretations of net neutrality.
These loopholes include a “zero rating” practice. This allows companies such as Virgin Mobile not to charge for data used for specific services, such as WhatsApp or Facebook Messaging. This in turn may make it harder for new social media companies to emerge.
A 39-month investigation by the European Commission into Google’s anti-competitive behaviour will culminate in a record $4.34 billion fine
Earlier this month, the UK and France announced a joint-conference to foster development within AI and cybersecurity research, alongside net neutrality. This follows on from a joint statement by the two countries, released in January, that pledged to “restate our commitment and support for the principle of net neutrality, which promotes a free and open internet.”
In tandem, it has been announced that a 39-month investigation by the European Commission into Google’s anti-competitive behaviour will culminate in a record $4.34 billion fine, the largest antitrust ruling in the company’s history. Coupled with action against Facebook and similar antitrust rulings, it is likely that the EU will only continue to strengthen its case for net neutrality.
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The roll back of net neutrality in the United States is in stark contrast to India’s new legislation on the matter. On the same day that the US repealed their laws, the country adopted what has been described as the world’s “strongest” interpretation of net neutrality.
Although only a third of India’s population of 1.3 billion are able to access the internet, this still accounts for around 500 million people, around the same size as the combined populations of the United States, Canada, France and the United Kingdom.
Thanks to cheaper mobile data and a growing smartphone boom, this number is also rapidly expanding.
Spurred on by campaigns such as the Internet Freedom Foundation, the new laws prevent “any form of discrimination or inference” with data. This includes “blocking, slowing down, or granting preferential treatment to any content.”
Smaller companies will be restricted from gaining a foothold in an already monopolised market
However, “critical IoT [Internet of Things] services” and “specialised services” are exempt. These include autonomous vehicles and remote surgery operations. The head of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), Ram Sewak Sharma, has compared these exemptions to that of an ambulance, bypassing traffic rules.
In 2016, India rejected an offer from Facebook to provide a free mobile service to its citizens.
The company’s ‘Free Basics’ app threatened to create a “two-tier” system, wherein internet use was largely restricted to a handful of sponsored apps by companies, such as Bing and Johnson & Johnson, and did not feature a proper browser or an email platform.
A report published in 2017 by the anti-censorship network Global Voices found that these limitations violated net neutrality.
However, the app is still widely used in countries such as Colombia, Ghana, Kenya, Mexico, Pakistan, and the Philippines.
Freedom of Expression Under Risk
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The repeal of net neutrality is a threat to the fundamental right of free expression and access to information. There is a real risk that access to websites in the US may now be limited to the select few who can afford to pay cable providers to prioritise their content over others, allowing for much easier access.
Such an outcome also limits our ability to access smaller websites and companies who simply cannot afford to pay the desired fees. What’s more, access to publishing and communication platforms will be restricted to those that can, again, afford to pay.
Larger companies are able to push themselves towards even greater web domination
Many Americans may now see their internet reduced to a handful of social media giants, such as Facebook and Twitter, alongside moguls such as Amazon, eBay, and YouTube, while access to niche websites or smaller platforms will become harder.
Smaller upstart companies will be further restricted from gaining a foothold in an already monopolised market, whilst larger companies such as Netflix and Facebook are able to push themselves towards even greater web domination.
Net Neutrality is a Human Right
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In 2011, a United Nations report declared that disconnecting people from the internet counts as a human rights violation. The report at the time took aim at France and the United Kingdom, for introducing laws that would interrupt internet services for those using illegal file sharing.
The UN’s conclusions not only highlights the need to keep data equal but also how much work is left when it comes to separating commercial interests from our fundamental rights on the internet.