Last Thursday, the US Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 to repeal net neutrality laws. The move could allow telecoms companies to provide preferential treatment – including ‘fast lane’ speeds and restricted content – to certain users. This could have hugely negative implications for consumers – despite the assurances of the major telcos to the contrary.
What could this decision mean for the UK?
Why did US consumers want to keep net neutrality?
To quote the Save the Internet campaign: “Net Neutrality is the basic principle that prohibits internet service providers like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon from speeding up, slowing down or blocking any content, applications or websites you want to use. Net Neutrality is the way that the internet has always worked.” In short it treats all traffic exactly the same and stops big companies from deciding that some services will be favoured with higher speed connections – or those they dislike being slowed to a crawl.
Despite the FCC being Republican-led (by three-commissioners-to-two) the majority of Americans (presumably of all parties) are in favour of preserving net neutrality. A study released by the University of Maryland on the eve of the neutrality vote showed that 83% of Americans – and three out of four Republicans – opposed the Government’s plans to repeal the regulations.
Alongside predictions surrounding preferential treatment only for customers willing to shell out more, are the worries of telecoms providers monopolistic hold over the US market. According to the FCC’s own interactive National Broadband Map, the vast majority of US customers have a choice between three or less broadband providers.
What does the US repealing net neutrality mean for the UK?
Despite being confined to America, there are worries that the FCC’s decision could set a ‘dangerous precedent’ for similar countries to also adopt a ‘business model’ for the internet.
Jim Killock, Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, asserted that the change could pose a threat to reportedly weak UK and EU laws protecting the ‘common’ cornerstone of the net. “If the USA removes protection for net neutrality, Europe will be next,” he said.
“European net neutrality protections are already insufficiently strong, and are already being abused by mobile providers selling data packages that favour sites like Facebook over their competitors. Facebook and Google don’t need extra help to dominate the market. The EU and UK need to step up and protect values of openness and competition that Trump’s government are busy abandoning.”
These offers are permitted under EU law as consumers choose to buy these passes and data is not limited speed-wise as part of the deal.
But Andrew Griffin, Technology Editor for The Independent, disagrees. Griffin has asserted that a business-first approach is far less likely to be executed in the UK, a claim grounded in the far-greater choice of telecommunications providers offered to the average UK customer.
Therefore, Griffin claims, there is a greater pressure on UK telecoms providers to offer faster and more ‘open’ services to attract and retain customers. While reports vary, Speedtest.net (maintained since 2006 by internet metrics firm Ookla) confirms that average download speeds are nearly 20 Mbps higher in the United Kingdom than the US – a sign that UK ISPs are committed to maintaining at least a competitive service.
Furthermore, net neutrality is enshrined by EU, not UK laws, making it more difficult for individual business interests to conflict with the regulations. Net neutrality is protected in the EU by the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC), which brings together all national regulatory authorities (NRAs) to ensure common wording of net neutrality in EU countries.
“ISPs are prohibited from blocking or slowing down of Internet traffic, except where necessary,” assets BEREC, summarising its official guidelines on net neutrality. The only exceptions to throttling are: traffic management obtained with a legal order; to ensure a network’s security; and to manage congestion (in which case all traffic should be treated equally). BEREC asserts that these provisions give consumers,” free to access and distribute information and content, run applications and use services of their choice”.
But a definitive answer on UK’s consumer’s rights with BEREC after Brexit, however, remains to be seen.
Andrew Glover, Chairman of the UK Internet Services Providers’ Association (ISPA) Council, has some answers here. Glover contests that UK ISPs – despite Brexit – are committed to preserving net neutrality through the ‘Open Internet Code of Practice’. The code, signed at the end of August 2012 garnered signatures from telecom companies including BT, BSkyB, KCOM, giffgaff, O2, Plusnet, TalkTalk, Tesco Mobile and Three. The Code was subsequently reviewed and updated in the summer of last year, to which EE, Virgin Media and Vodafone added their signatures.
Glover concludes: “Ofcom, the UK telecoms regulator, recently assessed the compliance of UK ISPs with these rules and found ‘that there are no major concerns regarding the openness of the internet in the UK’.”