Federal Communications Commission (FCC), an independent regulatory body of the US govt, recently decided to declassify Internet Service Providers (ISPs) under Title II of the Communications Act, 1934, which effectively meant withdrawal of its own Open Internet Order of 2015. The order enforced Net Neutrality preventing Internet Service Providers from Blocking, Throttling and Paid Prioritisation of movement of Internet data over their network.
Ajit Pai, Chairman of the FCC, while announcing the FCC vote in Dec’17, (which incidentally was a split 3-2 vote), justified roll back of the Title II classification by stating that, Title II Classification and Open Internet Order of 2015 were the heavy hand of the government, which attempted to address a problem that did not exist. He further stated that in pre 2015 era there was no evidence that ISPs were engaged in unfair practices causing inconvenience to both content providers and consumers. And also that the new regime required ISPs to be more transparent and that US FTC is now empowered to protect consumers and as well as competition. Ajit Pai claimed that the Open Internet Order compliance slowed down investments of telecom companies / ISPs in high speed networks, which meant no new innovation (loss to consumers) & fewer jobs and made business tougher for smaller companies which do not have the resources.
2015 and 2017 FCC rulings, both prior and after, triggered a huge debate about Net Neutrality. Pro Neutrality commentators argued that Internet should remain neutral to the content and ISPs should treat the data on their networks equally irrespective of whether they carried emails, blog uploads, video or audio streams, online shopping transactions, content from news sites or social media sited and where they originated from. For example, hypothetically if an ISP or telecom service providers has its own video streaming service competing against Netflix, then it could either block or throttle Netflix or allow Netflix data provided Netflix paid some fees for Netflix. They also suggested that absence of Net Neutrality would be detrimental to innovation particularly by start-ups who may not be able to pay fees to ISPs and there by not reach their intended audience and consumers.
But how does really the real world operate? Why is Net Neutrality not so obvious to all? For following reasons:
- Does the consumer really have a choice over the content?
The gatekeepers of the content whether they are social media sites, or search engines push content on to the consumers based on their own proprietory alogrithms, which lack transparency to both the consumers and the original primary content owners / creators. In addition, they charge fees to prioritise the content to the consumers putting at a disadvantage to those who cannot afford to pay such fees, which are legitimised as the innovative business models.
- All bits are not created equal
Nicholas Negroponte, though leader and founder of MIT’s Medial Lab has very famously argued that all bits are not created equal and data carrying health information, an ebook and online movie needs to be treated differently. Listen to him arguing his case:
- Market forces and regulatory bodies shall ensure fairness
If an ISP really operates in an unfair manner and blocks the content, then free market is likely to ensure that other ISPs may come up with a business offering that could be attractive to consumers, unless of course the ISPs have monopoly or form a cartel, in which case regulatory bodies can intervene and ensure fairness.
It would be interesting to watch what business models evolve in US under the new FCC regime and whether apprehensions expressed by pro net neutrality commentators indeed come true or Internet just continues to deliver innovation!