For those of you with your heads buried in the sand, you may have missed that the FCC voted yesterday on a new proposal for net neutrality. The concept of net neutrality has been around for years and on Thursday the FCC took a vote to put the idea into action. The FCC however is the American commission so how will it affect us here in the UK and what exactly is now going to happen?
What is Net Neutrality
The internet is a free, decentralised medium that allows anyone to broadcast what they want and net neutrality is the idea that it remains this way. ISPs currently have nothing stopping them from blocking or slowing down access to servers or from slowing down certain protocols that users may be using: limiting the bandwidth on P2p connections has been a prominent issue for quite a while now (read here for more). Due to the structure of the internet, the only way of controlling what the user can and cannot access is at the ISPs, where the user connects to the world wide web.
Currently an ISP is allowed to control traffic however they like, as mentioned in the video if an ISP didn’t want you to use Google but use Yahoo! instead it could simply block Google and redirect you to Yahoo!. But what would you do if your ISP did this? Well you’d switch to someone else and it’s precisely this reason why ISPs don’t control our content like this (after all we’re not China).
Do you remember back in 2007 when Pearl Jam’s performance was censored as it was streamed via the Lollapalooza webcast (provided by AT&T)? AT&T decided the pull the plug when Pearl Jam began singing controversial lyrics telling George Bush to “find yourself another home”. Both the UK and the USA are countries of free speech, you are allowed to stand up and say what you like (this is the reason we don’t stop the BNP or EDL from marches here in the UK). By censoring Pearl Jam’s lyrics, AT&T violated everything that free speech stands for and net neutrality will put and end to this.
In March of this year, Comcast (America’s largest ISP) starting charging Netflix for unrestricted bandwidth to the user. This was incredibly controversial since it allowed the ISP to start deciding how fast they want certain websites to deliver speeds at. Initially consumers didn’t care since they didn’t have to pay more, but why would Netflix start forking out money to give consumers fast speeds without adding this cost onto their price plan? Suddenly consumers were against the idea since they didn’t want to be paying more just to watch a video without waiting for it to buffer all the time.
The idea that companies have paid prioritisation is one that a huge number of people and companies are against (and rightly so in my opinion).
The FCCs proposal does not disallow the idea that ISPs can charge companies fees to control the speed at which content is delivered. Current ISPs limit the bandwidth of data to our homes (which is why BT broadband is a cheaper than BT infinity) and this is not necessarily a bad thing since not all users want super fast internet, thus they shouldn’t have to pay so much if they don’t want to.
ISPs don’t control the bandwidth companies deliver data at but since Comcast starting doing this with Netflix in March, the FCC has essentially said this is fine to do. You may have noticed that in April Netflix started charging £1 more for new customers, just one month after they started having to pay Comcast for unrestricted Bandwidth.
So as a consumer not only am I having to pay a premium on my home broadband but also to Netflix so that they can deliver fast speeds.
The Two Sides of the Coin
So far we’ve seen that the idea of net neutrality is good, and most people will agree that is is. But that’s only side of the proposals coin. The chairman of the FCC, Tom Wheeler, has stated that he has allowed ISPs to compromise by allowing them to charge content companies (like Netflix) more for faster bandwidth delivery (dubbed the internet “fast lane”).
So while net neutrality is everything that the internet originally stood for, this new FCC proposal does not entirely fulfil this promise. In 2011 when the Lib Dems decided that universities could charge upto £9,000 yearly fees (thanks a lot Nick Clegg) they said that this wasn’t a requirement simply that it was allowed. Well just as the FCC said that ISPs don’t have to charge companies for faster bandwidth, it’s more than likely that they will.
Many against the idea of the new internet “fast lane” are saying it’s unfair that companies such as Netflix, who can afford the ISPs costs, will have an edge on competition who cannot afford the fees. New startups will not be able to pay for fast content delivery and in a society where speeds are increasing enormously this will new it very difficult to compete in the current market.
How this affects the UK
So how is this affecting us as British citizens? Well firstly the majority of content companies are based in the USA and this is where the proposal has been passed, like I said Netflix fees have already increased. But secondly how long until Britain decides to do the same? Well not long apparently as the EU have already adopted this law and let’s face it they most likely will bring the same idea to Europe.
For those who are against the internet “fast lane” then feel free make your voice heard (and I strongly encourage that you do).