Net neutrality is such a hot topic right now that even Burger King cooked up a campaign to explain the appeal of an online level playing field. The clever ad highlighted two things: people really don’t understand the intricacies of the debate and, depending on where you live in the world, people are willing to defend the principles of net neutrality like they would for traditional democratic rights and civil liberties.
The recent US repeal of net neutrality protection laws once again sparked a worldwide debate as global Internet users rallied behind their North American brethren. The media coverage was extensive but confusion remains. While net neutrality is rolled back in the US, campaigners claim that in many parts of the world an unequal online playing field is already being silently rolled out.
The US and Net Neutrality
In December of 2017, The US Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal the rules that prohibited Internet Service Providers from blocking and throttling content or prioritizing “fast lane” Internet for companies and consumers that paid premiums.
Simply put, the Open Internet Order rules that first came into force during the Obama administration were scrapped meaning ISPs like Comcast could in theory charge users for accessing certain content on the Internet like they do with cable TV.
The decision has handed over the Internet to private corporations, who many predict will begin to test their ability to control how traffic moves across the web. The move could be disastrous for both consumers and content producers alike, with ISPs charging consumers a premium to access more popular sites.
Netflix, one of the loudest proponents of keeping the net neutral, described the repeal as “misguided”. Releasing a statement, Netflix said: “We’re disappointed in the FCC’s decision to gut the net neutrality protections that ushered in an unprecedented era of innovation, creativity and civic engagement. Today’s decision is the beginning of a longer legal battle. Netflix will stand with innovators, large and small, to oppose this misguided FCC order.”
Some question the sincerity of the statement, accusing giant tech companies like Netflix, Google and Facebook as being all rhetoric and little action. Critics argue that giant tech firms have become so big that they no longer rely on net neutrality and are confident that consumers will pay the levy to access their content.
Without a doubt, consumers and small businesses are the ones who are the most likely to suffer from the changes. Many small online businesses have expressed their concerns, including David Callicott, a small online candle vendor, who told the New York Times that “the internet, the speed of it, our entire business revolves around that,” David Callicott, who sells paraffin-free candles on his website, GoodLight, told the New York Times
Given the financial incentives for ISPs to begin charging premiums and offer “bundling services”
With the spotlight is very much foxed on the US experience, meanwhile around the world some ISPs are making subtler moves to roll out an unequal web without stirring the hornet's nest.
Europe and Net Neutrality
The European Union is often hailed as the world’s strongest consumer protectionist agency. A plethora of EU consumer laws have been passed since the foundation of the Union in order to defend the rights of its citizens and limit the powers of large corporations.
Given the long history of consumer defence, most would assume that the EU would be staunch defenders of a neutral web and ISPs would have a hard time trying to slip past any anti-consumer services. But critics say that it’s already happening in Europe, citing Portugal’s experience with bundling services as ISPs split the web into packages.
The Portuguese plan stirred a lot of controversy but on closer inspection it’s another example of the confusion surrounding net neutrality and is a lot more nuanced than net neutrality campaigners would have us believe. The plan in question is for mobile packages and is akin to Vodafone UK’s pass that allows users unlimited access to certain sites like Facebook and Twitter by subscribing for a flat rate monthly fee.
Mobile subscription plans offered by operators are far removed from an axing of net neutrality rules, in fact it offers consumers unlimited coverage for apps and content they are interested in instead of a limited and fixed monthly data usage.
“You could argue that zero-rating and similar “sponsored data” plans are more insidious, because subscriptions at least make users consider whether they want to pay more for a better experience on certain apps,” writes Adi Robertson in her piece that explain s the nuances and misunderstandings surrounding the net neutrality debate.
Asia and Net Neutrality
Asia has some of the strongest net neutrality regulations in force. Particularly in India, regulators have been pushing for stricter protections in light of the US experience. The Telecom Regulatory Authority have recommended banning "discriminatory tariffs" and “throttling data speeds for any online service”.
Even with these strict consumer friendly regulations, India has recommended exceptions for OTT services like Facetime and Whatsapp that are already eating into mobile operators revenues. Simply put, even the most hardcore campaigners for a free web understand that room has to be left for mobile subscription services. And it makes sense that free OTT services can’t ride the wave of public support for a neutral web by making millions of the back of mobile operators network costs.
For political motives in china, ISPs already block access to blacklisted sites like Facebook that the government have banned. Critics have also pointed to the growth of services like King Card as indicators of a restricted and “premium web”. King Card gives its users unlimited mobile access to some of China’s most popular social media sites.
In China, like Portugal, the nuance again lies in the difference between directly blocking and throttling sites compared to mobile subscription plans that give unlimited access to popular sites.
Mobile Operators and Net Neutrality
So what does the net neutrality debacle mean for mobile operators? It’s clear that some type of limitation to browsing the web will come about, whether through market forces or drancion lawmakers and mobile operators should poise themselves for the new future of browsing.
The debate is heated and when all is said and done it comes down to public opinion. Mobile operators need to make it clear to their customers that they are providing unlimited access through mobile subscriptions, not throttling content.
They have to rise above the confusion and “fake news” surrounding the issue by explicitly showing the benefits of subscription packages and the difference between content subscription and net neutrality.