Can the founding principles of the Internet survive?
Before the World Wide Web was released in public in 1991, Internet access was far from common. Today, web based applications are an important part of our daily lives. Although this largely applies to the western world, advancements in connectivity have encouraged a rapid increase in web use worldwide. Keen to support this trend, Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is currently creating a giant satellite fleet to provide Internet access to the masses. . . but alongside ambitious plans for ubiquitous connectivity are equally determined plans to restrict it.
Arguably one of the most important principles of Internet use is net neutrality, which ensures that all data is treated equally by Internet Service Providers (ISPs). However, this May, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) levied a full scale attack on this vital concept. The government led initiative aims to repeal earlier regulations to ensure openness and fairness on the web, allowing ISPs to pick and choose which sites people can visit. So, what does this mean for the future of connectivity, and the countless businesses that operate online?
When America sneezes, the World Wide Web catches a cold
Today, the Internet could almost be described as a commodity and as connectivity is perceived as necessary, it presents a lucrative opportunity. Without tight regulations, ISPs will be able to exploit this by charging higher access fees – as well as controlling what Internet users say, see and do online. It’s therefore somewhat unsurprising that the FCC’s new chairman, Ajit Pai, happens to be a former lawyer for prominent ISP Verizon. Although the potential repeal of net neutrality laws is confined to the US, the country has formidable global influence. Nonetheless, the FCC’s plans have met with considerable backlash. On the 12th July, Internet companies and activist groups came together to protest against the initiative, and a further 800 startups and investors wrote directly to Chairman Pai. The demonstration was backed by digital giants like Facebook, Google, Amazon, Spotify, and even Pornhub. The problem is, for most big online players, net neutrality no longer seems to be a serious threat. As their services are so integral to Internet use, they expect customers to pay up if ISPs demand it. These companies may be very powerful, but this doesn’t mean they won’t be detrimentally affected by potential changes.
How will the end of net neutrality disrupt connectivity?
Connectivity is generally hailed as an enabler for business, creativity, innovation and socioeconomic growth. This is why the expansion of Internet access is so important, improving the quality of life and future prospects for people across the globe. Internet access bridges socioeconomic divides both between and within countries. By putting an even higher price on connectivity, economically disadvantaged citizens will become even more marginalised. Businesses and professionals that use the Internet to get hold of resources and contact clients could also find life increasingly difficult. Paying ISP rates will be hard enough for established companies, let alone for young startups without the same resources. Simply put, if net neutrality supporters lose the fight against the FCC, the Internet could easily become an arbitrary money making scheme. Big cable companies will have more power than ever before to control consumers, directing them to desired pages and only revealing selected data. If you were wondering why might a government be so keen to soften the regulations on ISPs, just imagine the effect this censorship could have on election results. If voters could only access positive information about a political party, then that party would be more likely to gain support. The negative disruption is quite clear, but according to the FCC the infringement of data neutrality serves an important purpose. Regulations, stated Chairman Pai in April, are restrictive by nature and will damage the competitive free market. When you consider the fact that Congress voted to let ISPs sell customer browsing habits to advertisers back in March, it seems more like an exploitation of consumer rights for corporate gain.
Net neutrality has characterised Internet access for the last few decades, ensuring fairness and transparency. The FCC’s attack should make any web based business very, very nervous. Activist protests are all very well, but what net neutrality needs is a body of committed and powerful players with the resources to oppose obtrusive policies. There’s still a long fight ahead for both sides – hopefully the involvement of key companies like the social networks isn’t just to save face.
How else might US policy impact global Internet patterns? Is this the end of net neutrality? Are influential companies like Google, Netflix and Facebook really immune from the impact of biased ISPs? Comment below with your thoughts.