Overnight, the five commissioners of the United States’ Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted 3-2, on partisan political lines, to revoke the rules about how internet traffic is handled by ISPs. While the new laws are only applied in the United States, they will have broader impact. Here’s everything you need to know.
What is net neutrality?
Net neutrality is the idea that all internet traffic is considered equal. Whether you’re streaming Netflix, transferring files over FTP to a client, collecting email, or simply browsing the web the ones and zeroes that move through networks are all considered equal. And while you can prioritise traffic within your network, the movement of data across the internet, which is network of connected networks, is all treated equally.
What changed with the vote?
In 2015, the Obama administration put in place a rule called the Open Internet Order. That order stipulated that all Internet traffic was to be treated equally; traffic of one type, or from a particular source of going to a specific destination could not be prioritised over any other traffic.
The FCC is ruled by five commissioners. As in many things in the United States, the commissioners are each aligned with either the Republican or Democratic parties. The FCC commission today has three Republicans and two Democrats. The chairman, Ajit Pai, a former Verizon (a major US ISP) employee and declared Republican, was appointed to the commission by President Obama as a commissioner but elevated to the role of FCC Chairman at the start of this year by President Trump.
Pai has been an advocate for ending net neutrality and giving service providers the ability to prioritise internet traffic, saying the current rules are heavy handed and they stifle competition.
The vote has resulted in the net neutrality rules being quashed. The only thing service providers in the US need to do is tell customers when they throttle or prioritise traffic. But they are otherwise free to do pretty much whatever they like.
For example, if an ISP enters into an agreement with a news network, then they could ensure streaming from that network is prioritised so that a competing news network doesn’t stream as smoothly or at a decent resolution. If we were applying this to Australia, it would be the equivalent of Bigpond prioritising Foxtel’s streaming services over Netflix.
The vote basically shifted regulation of service providers from being “common carriers” – think of phone carriers that can’t prioritise one type of phone call over another type – into an “information provider”. The effect of this is that service providers are no longer bound to treat all traffic equally.
Until today, the Internet was classified as a Title II service. Such services can be regulated by the FCC. But by reclassifying the Internet, the FCC can’t make rules.
In other words, ISPs can pretty much do what they like with traffic, as long as they let customers know.
When will it all take effect?
The new rules will take a few weeks to finalise so there won’t be immediate changes. And there is a chance that opponents to the FCC’s decision will go to the courts to overturn the decision.
What will the impact be?
It’s unlikely US service providers will launch into a widespread redistribution of how traffic is allocated. But, assuming the new rules aren’t revoked, we can expect some subtle changes.
There are already strong ties between some service providers and content companies. For example, Comcast owns NBNUniversal. The new rules open the doors to Comcast prioritising the streaming of content from their own media company.
If you’re a small, emerging content producer then, unless you have the money to have your content prioritised you might find it difficult for your content to be viewed at the same quality as a more cashed-up competitor. Or ISPs could charge more for the “Netflix package” where they charge you a few extra bucks each month so you can get 4K Netflix instead of a lower quality stream.
It’s hard to see a situation where this is a good thing for consumers. And it seems anti-competitive if you’re a small content creator or distributor.
But we’re in Australia – what should we care?
For Australians, very little is likely to change, at least in the short term. We have our own internet access challenges with the deployment of the NBN. And the ACCC is on the warpath when it comes to RSPs not delivering on their performance claims.
A significant mount of our internet browsing comes from US sites. And, traffic to those sites could be impacted. While I doubt we’ll see impact on services such as Netflix, iTunes or others – which use global content distribution networks to shuffle data to us – it’s possible that purely US-based services could be hit.
The greater issue, and this is one we might not see for some time, is that we follow suit and service providers allow specific types of content to prioritised over others. But that will take some time. And, despite what may seem like a dysfunctional government system, our regulators aren’t so strongly tied to party politics. The ACCC, Reserve Bank, ASIC and other regulatory bodies might not be perfect but at least decisions aren’t made along party lines – as the FCC’s ruling seems to have been made.
Should we care? Yes. But it’s more of a “watch this place” level of worry than a “the world is ending” problem. For now.