December 5, 2019

DRM Special Report: All you need to know about the ‘net-neutrality’ debate

Recently, USA’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) repealed the Obama era regulations that apparently protected ‘net neutrality’. Digital rights activists are resisting this repeal. They believe that the action will limit the ‘free access’ to various types of content and give more power to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to manipulate internet and give preferential treatment to certain content within America.

As the fiery debates continue to take place, here is a list of things you need to know about net neutrality.

What is Net Neutrality?

Net Neutrality means no content over the internet should get preferential treatment and every website/content should have an equal opportunity to reach the wider audience.  In other words, Internet Service Providers like Pakistan Telecommunication Network (PTCL) should not be allowed to discriminate against your website by providing speedy access to other websites. It also means that ISPs should not be allowed to charge you extra money to access particular content over the internet. For instance, if PTCL gives free access to its own website but wants you to pay for accessing Facebook, this is against the spirit of net neutrality. This means that the content over Netflix should be as easily accessible to you as it is easier for you to access YouTube videos.

The debate around net neutrality:

American Internet Service providers had long argued to repeal the Obama era net neutrality principles as they believed that the practice of preferential treatment to a particular content or paid prioritization was essential for better quality internet services. Before the controversial vote, FCC’s chairman Ajit Pai also echoed the ISP’s voices. “We are helping consumers and promoting competition,” Mr. Pai said. “Broadband providers will have more incentive to build networks, especially to underserved areas.”

On the other hand, digital rights activists believe that the repeal of Obama era regulations will make certain internet services expensive and allow the corporate giants such as Facebook and Twitter to dominate cyberspace because of their financial strength. This is feared to overshadow startups and small businesses who would not be able to afford expensive fast lane internet services. They are also of the opinion that eventually this will lead to the creation of ‘two’ types of the internet; a fast lane primarily dominated by rich elites and a slow track internet for the rest.

Obama Era regulations:

In 2015, under former US President Barack Obama, Democrat-dominated FCC introduced certain regulations that prevented American Internet Service Providers to charge more for a particular genre of content (such as Netflix), slow down access to some websites or create fast lanes for certain type of content (who pays more for instance). 

New FCC regulations:

On December 14, 2017, the Republican-dominated FCC passed the regulation by 3-2 to reverse the Obama era “net neutrality” regulations.  The new regulations will allow ISPs to block, throttle or discriminate among the internet content but also want companies to publicly disclose these practices. The new rules bar states from imposing their own net neutrality rules. This decision reflected the Trump administration mindset that the unregulated business will eventually yield innovation and help the economy.

According to Columbia University Law Professor Tim Wu, who coined the term “net neutrality”, the latest regulations not only repeal Obama era rules, but go a step further by allowing ISPs to block media content. This was not the case during George W.Bush administration according to Mr.Wu.

Effect of new regulations on US Internet users:

As of now, it is believed the new FCC regulations will take weeks to come into effect.  Various US News outlets have reported that a common internet user’s life in the United States will not change any-time soon and they will continue to enjoy easy access to all types of content without any discrimination.

Despite the fact that the new rules allow internet service providers to charge more for specialized services and access to content over the internet, big companies like AT&T and Comcast have ensured customers that they will not give preferential treatment to a certain content. Analysts are of the view that the ISPs will not begin to create paid fast-track lanes for certain content for now for the fear of public backlash.  Nevertheless, the new regulations allow them to create fast lanes but also publicly notify.

Meanwhile, a series of legal battles have ensued after the repeal of Federal Communications Commission. However, it is not clear what direction the legal battle will take place.

Effect of these regulations abroad:

It is not clear how the new regulations could affect the users outside of the US. Some analysts are of the opinion that if prices of certain services go up within the United States, for instance the Netflix, it will affect the users outside the US as well. 

Written by

Talal Raza is a Program Manager at Media Matters for Democracy. He has worked with renowned media organizations and NGOs including Geo News, The Nation, United States Institute of Peace and Privacy International.

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