Equal access to the Internet is under threat in US. What does this mean?

Who gains from the likely overturning of the Obama-era rules of 'neutrality' on the Net? The Indian Express explains the implications for consumers, and where the debate stands in India

Written by Anil Sasi | Updated: November 23, 2017 9:32 am
Net neutrality in India The FCC ruling comes at a time when TRAI in the final stages of prescribing its views on Net neutrality (File Photo)

Who gains from the likely overturning of the Obama-era rules of ‘neutrality’ on the Net? The Indian Express explains the implications for consumers, and where the debate stands in India.

On Tuesday, the Federal Communications Commission, the US federal communications regulator, announced plans to change the rules governing the Internet that were issued by the Obama administration two years ago, and move in favour of giving sweeping powers to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) over the content consumers can access. Ajit V Pai, who was appointed to the FCC Chair by President Donald Trump this January, spearheaded the change in what is broadly referred to as “Net neutrality” rules. Pai’s draft ruling will be voted on at the FCC’s Open Meeting on December 14 — and will almost certainly be cleared, given that there are three Republican and two Democratic commissioners on the Commission, who are widely expected to vote along party lines.

What is Net neutrality?

It is the concept of content and application providers being treated equally by telecom operators. Consumers get access to all websites, nothing is blocked, and speed of access is not differentiated. Just as a phone company does not get to decide who a person can call and what she can say on that call, the ISP is not expected to dictate the content that a consumer views or posts online. FCC rules issued in 2015 aimed at upholding this broad principle of neutrality, giving consumers equal access to Web content, and barring broadband providers from blocking or slowing access to content, or charging consumers more for certain types of content.

What changes does the FCC want?

Chairman Pai’s draft ruling, ‘Restoring Internet Freedom Order’, seeks to remove what it calls “heavy-handed Internet regulations”. Critics say it will allow ISPs to give preferential treatment to particular sites and apps, and to their own digital content. ISPs, they say, could block access to sites and cap and throttle network speeds by segregating the Internet into fast and slow lanes, slow down competitors’ content, block unfavourable political opinions, and charge consumers extra for a faster Net experience.

Also, according to the plan, FCC will no longer regulate ISPs; the job of protecting consumers from detrimental business practices will go to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which has neither any telecommunications’ expertise nor rule-making regulatory authority in this area. According to Tom Wheeler, who served as Chairman of the FCC from 2013-17, the proposal “neatly steps away from (the) responsibility (to protect telecom consumers) by redefining Internet service as not being a ‘telecommunications service’.”

What is Pai’s justification?

After becoming Chairman, Pai had said he intended to “fire up the weed whacker and remove those rules that are holding back investment, innovation, and job creation” in telecommunications. The FCC’s main argument for dismantling the regulation that Wheeler spearheaded is that the federal government should “stop micromanaging the Internet”.

Who benefits from the order?

Clearly, big ISPs such as AT&T Inc, Comcast Corp and Verizon Communications Inc, which want a repeal of the Obama-era rules. On the other side, companies such as Google parent Alphabet Inc, Facebook Inc, Amazon and video streaming player Netflix Inc were among the big corporations that had petitioned Pai to not scrap the rules. In recent years, companies such as AT&T have tried offering discounts on Internet service as long as consumers agree to let the company monitor their Web browsing history and some other user details. Others such as Verizon are reported to have tried to drive users to their own apps by excluding them from mobile data usage limits.

Is there a conflict of interest?

Pai was Associate General Counsel between 2001 and 2003 for Verizon, one of the companies that gains from his ruling. Critics have alleged that Pai is acting more as “an ally to broadcasters” than a steward of the FCC.

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