The United States’ Federal Communications Commission voted on Thursday to repeal a set of regulations which ensure what has become known as ‘net neutrality’.
The decision has been seen as a victory for ISPs (Internet Service Providers) and a defeat for campaigners of a free and democratic internet.
While the decision will have enormous implications for those living in the United States there are already signs that it will have an impact on the UK and even Europe as a whole.
To help understand what this decision actually means and what it could mean for the UK we’ve broken it all down into some simple questions.
What is net neutrality?
Net neutrality quite simply describes a set of regulations that prevent internet providers (UK examples being Virgin, BT, Sky and Plusnet) from throttling internet speeds to certain services such as Netflix or BBC iPlayer.
Currently when you browse the internet at home, every website and service you visit gets the same internet speed. That is the founding principle of net neutrality.
If you take away those regulations however there is then absolutely nothing to stop ISPs from slowing the speeds of your internet to its competitors such as Netflix and then charging you a premium if you want to watch them at the same quality as their favoured partners.
In the US these laws were enshrined in an extremely old piece of legislation called Title II of the Communications Act 1934. Under this law it effectively forced large networks to act responsibly and under the acceptance that they were providing a public service.
It is this law that has now been repealed in the US and it is precisely why there has been such a strong outcry from open rights campaigners and rather unsurprisingly, Silicon Valley.
This sounds bad, why has this happened?
Unlike the UK, the US doesn’t have a particularly competitive market around internet and telecommunications companies.
The FCC has been trying to find ways to increase competition among the biggest players such as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon and it believes that by scrapping these regulations it can do that.
How? Well in the words of the FCC’s chairman Ajit Pai he believes “broadband providers will have more incentive to build networks, especially to underserved areas.”
Effectively by removing this level playing field it will allow ISPs to offer a greater number of packages e.g. If you choose us we’ll give you the fastest speeds for Spotify over our competitors.
Does this currently happen in the UK?
Net neutrality is vigorously protected in the UK under the European Union’s regulation on Open Internet Access.
“The changes to net neutrality rules in the US do not have an impact on customers of UK ISPs. For a long time, UK providers have been committed to preserving an open internet through a voluntary code.
“More recently, strict EU rules have come into force which clearly state that ‘providers of internet access services shall treat all traffic equally, when providing internet access services, without discrimination, restriction or interference’.”
While that protects our broadband speeds we are already seeing some worrying evidence of this creeping into our smartphone packages.
Data is still considered a precious commodity in relation to our smartphones, especially as we move more into an age of streaming over downloading.
EE for example will give customers free Apple Music subscriptions and perhaps more crucially it won’t count the data you use streaming music through Apple Music.
The same can’t be said for Spotify which EE still counts towards your data.
Another example is Virgin Media which has said that on certain plans it will not count the data you use on Twitter, WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger.
Finally Vodafone has taken things a step further and started creating paid packages that let you have unlimited data use through certain services. The video pass for example gives you unlimited data use through YouTube, Netflix, Amazon Video, TVPlayer, My5, and Vevo and costs £9 per month. You’ll notice it doesn’t include BBC iPlayer, Sky Q or Twitch.
Now on the surface that seems like a great deal for consumers but by picking favourites it actually makes it harder for competition to thrive as why would you start using a service that does count towards your data.
Now this isn’t the same as deliberately slowing down the speeds of your internet to certain services but it’s a step towards restricting the access you have either through a paywall or for the sheer competitiveness of it.
Could it happen in the UK?
One of the important aspects to consider here is Brexit. As part of the UK’s choice to leave the European Union the Great Repeal Bill aim to transfer many of the EU laws we currently use into UK law.
Because net neutrality is currently protected under EU law there’s nothing to stop MPs from making amendments to it or even removing it completely as they move the regulations over to the UK, however it’s very likely there would be strong opposition to this.
Speaking to Huff Post UK, a spokesperson for the Open Rights Group pointed out that in the immediate future it’s not politicians we should be worried about.
“The main enemies of net neutrality, are ISP greed, and bandwidth scarcity: it’s all about charging and rationing bandwidth.” they said.
“That’s why mobile providers (building expensive infrastructure) and fixed line ISPs (using outdated equipment that can’t give you speeds you want) are both quite keen on getting rid of net neutrality.”