As early as the 1960s, the U.S. Department of Defense had a system that allowed multiple computers located at different universities and research centers in the country to communicate in a single network – the embryo of the great interconnection of networks that we know today as the internet. However, it was not until 1993 that the World Wide Web was put in the public domain.
From then on, and with the creation of Mosaic, the first popular Web browser, and other simple graphic tools for the use of the network, the number of hosts or computer equipment connected to the internet would begin to grow rapidly. So much so that, today, the net is an unavoidable means to access information media, social networks, download files and videos, and even as a source of work.
However, the possibility of using this technology and its contents could start to change, with users having to pay internet service providers more, for the privilege of access.
In 2015, under the Barack Obama administration, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced the policy known as “net neutrality” to regulate broadband internet providers as a public utility. The regulations prevented companies from blocking websites, or charging for a higher quality, faster service, or certain content. In July, 2017, a new law was proposed including the withdrawal of these measures, which was approved by the FCC last December 14, by three votes to two.
According to El País, the change – presented as “a victory for freedom” – has come from the big suppliers themselves, as telecommunications giants like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon have aligned with the Trump government to break the legal barrier that prevented them from imposing their will regarding internet traffic and content.
In this sense, the consequences of the change could be deeper than first expected, as the repeal of net neutrality means users are left unprotected and could be forced to pay additional charges, or have to purchase different service packages in order to navigate certain websites.
“The withdrawal of neutrality will mean restoring freedom, returning to a better and cheaper Internet. There will still be consumer protection and their access will not be limited. But it is not our job to decide who wins and who loses in the Internet economy. The government will stop regulating how providers should handle themselves, and they will have incentives to face the next generation of networks and services,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai stated upon announcing the move.
Although the recent measure has its defenders, there are many who claim that the decision poses a threat to the internet, free markets, and online innovation.
An open letter from the “Pioneers for Net Neutrality,” signed by 21 high-profile people - among them Vinton Cerf, considered one of the “fathers” of the internet; Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple; Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web; and Mitchell Baker, executive chairwoman of the Mozilla Foundation; calls on the FCC to cancel its vote repealing Net Neutrality protections.
“This proposed Order would repeal key network neutrality protections that prevent Internet access providers from blocking content, websites and applications, slowing or speeding up services or classes of service, and charging online services for access or fast lanes to Internet access providers’ customers. The proposed Order would also repeal oversight over other unreasonable discrimination and unreasonable practices,” the letter reads.
It should be mentioned that in mid-November, when the FCC’s proposed Restoring Internet Freedom Order was released, hundreds of U.S. technology companies made public their disagreement.
A statement from Facebook noted “We are disappointed that the proposal announced this week by the FCC fails to maintain the strong net neutrality protections that will ensure the internet remains open for everyone,” the BBC reported.
Meanwhile, the American Sustainable Business Council, representing almost one thousand U.S. firms, filed an open letter with the FCC, noting “We also depend on a strong competitive framework and legal foundation to ensure that Internet service providers (ISPs) cannot discriminate against websites, services, and apps, or impose new fees that harm smallbusinesses.”
Even within the FCC itself, there were those who expressed their disagreement with the regulations approved December 14.
The Democrat FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel noted that the “rash decision” puts the FCC “on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of the law, and the wrong side of the American public.”
WITHOUT NET NEUTRALITY REGULATIONS: EXPERIENCES IN OTHER COUNTRIES
An example of what happens when net neutrality regulations are inexistent is the case of Portugal. As a member of the European Union, this country is governed by laws that prohibit companies from reducing the connection speed or blocking access to certain services, however, what is not regulated are certain kinds of pricing schemes in which only certain applications or data are offered without cutting into users’ data plans.
This means that the user can browse the contents of an internet service provider with an open access package, but if he or she wants to access other services outside the range of this operator, they have to pay for additional packages.
In the case of Guatemala, meanwhile, companies offer prepaid packages offering access not only to a set of similar services, but to a single application, Renata Ávila, senior digital rights adviser for the World Wide Web Foundation, told BBC Mundo.
“Many people will have two SIM cards there, because on one SIM card they can access WhatsApp for free, and on another SIM card you access Facebook for free,” she explained.
According to Ávila, this hyper-fragmentation of internet access has the greatest negative impact on those with little money to connect, “which is precisely the user that must be empowered, to help broaden their horizons, to apply for jobs online.” She added that these users will be forced to access only the cheapest, indispensable content, and will lose the possibility of accessing the internet of creation and innovation.
While up to now the major internet providers in the United States have not talked about their future plans in the context of non-neutrality, the fact is that the new measure opens the way to condition users’ access to certain information.
One of the possible ramifications is that telephone companies gain even more power, on being able to limit access to certain contents. But the new scheme will also affect small or emerging startup companies on the web.
These already find it difficult to compete with renowned multinationalssuch as Google, Amazon, Netflix, and Facebook. Having to pay operators special rates for preferential access to the internet will probably mean their contents are of lower quality and attract an even smaller number of users, as a large percentage can not assume the new costs.
Even though the recent regulation is limited to the territory of the United States, the concern is that most of the services that currently circulate on the web are developed by U.S. companies. Hence, many specialists and CEOs of telecommunications companies claim that the prospect of the so-called two-speed, or two-tiered internet, of “the rich” and “the poor” is closer than we imagine.
It seems many of them are ignorant of the fact that this measure only increases the already existent digital divide, since information and communication technologies have long been marked by unequal levels of access, dependent on the development of each country, individuals’ income, and the opportunities for computer literacy to make optimal use of these tools.