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Ajit Varadaraj Pai testifies before the United States Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on his nomination to be a Member of the Federal Communications Commission on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on July 19, 2017. (Photo by Ron Sachs / CNP) *** Please Use Credit from Credit Field ***

Does “net neutrality” matter? No, says the US government

The U.S. government just dumped “net neutrality.”

And in the process rekindled a huge debate. It’s something on which people hold strong views.

The core idea is that ISPs (Internet Service Providers – the companies that enable you to plug in) should be required to be “neutral” in what sites and services you are able to see. In other words, all they are doing is hooking you up.

This has largely been the case in the U.S. all along, but in 2015 during the Obama administration the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) put in place tight rules on ISPs that codified things. And they did so by defining the internet as the same kind of thing as a telephone company (the FCC can regulate them in detail). The FCC is an agency with a lot of freedom, but the majority of its five commissioners reflect the party of the President. So it just changed hands, and what’s happened is no great surprise.

The ISPs don’t like “neutrality” and particularly did not like the Obama rules. Why? Because it limits their freedom – and without it they see the possibility for making more money. For example, they could force Netflix to pay them a lot more money to make its service available than your local restaurant’s website. Actually, apparently Netflix has been paying them all along to keep them sweet. And Americans have had plenty of experience of anti-neutrality practices, which have always been legal on airplanes and in other private contexts. Plenty of commercial wifi networks ban Whatsapp and other services. Up in the sky you generally can’t watch Netflix or YouTube. It may soon be a bit more like that at home.

The ISPs represent the old-style telecommunications companies, like A. T and T. The new-style tech companies, like Netflix and Twitter and Facebook, strongly favour “neutrality” rules, which of course are in their interest.

So from one point of view this is a struggle between old and new tech corporate interests with their Washington, DC lobbyists duking it out. Ajit Pai, the Trump-appointed Republican now chairing the FCC, was a Commissioner in Obama days and fought against the 2015 rules, so no-one is surprised he’s planning to get rid of them. His critics point to the fact that he used to be a lobbyist for Verizon, a telecomms giant, though to be fair that was some time ago and he has held various government posts since. His argument is that the internet has flourished as a free-enterprise effort, and companies need to be free to charge for services as they choose.

Here’s a handy explainer in the business magazine Fortune, if you would like to know more.

And here’s a Channel 4 summary from a UK and European point of view. UK and EU rules broadly favour neutrality, though every country is free to set its own:

“Laws are weaker in many other countries, meaning ISPs can offer different packages and give preferential treatment to selected services….In New Zealand, for instance, mobile users can pay to exempt Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter from their monthly data limit. Other social media is not included and the data caps still apply.”

One widely-held concern is that overturning neutrality rules falls into a pattern in which the idea of a common “open” internet is coming under increasing threat – with heavy government restrictions in repressive countries, and a recent Russian proposal for a separate internet for the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa).

So while the sky isn’t falling, the old vision of a free, open, internet is under more pressure than ever before.