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15 December 2017

What’s next for net neutrality?

America’s net neutrality regulations have been dismantled. What does this mean for the UK? 

By Amelia Tait

You might be hearing rumours that net neutrality is dead. Yesterday, the American Federal Communications Commission voted to dismantle net neutrality rules put in place by the Obama administration. These rules protected the internet as we know and love it. For Americans, things are about to change, big time. But how exactly? And what does this mean for the UK? 

Hang on, recap, what is net neutrality?

Net neutrality is exactly what you’re used to – an open internet where all of the data you access online is treated equally by your internet service provider (ISP). Whether you want to watch Netflix or visit your favourite sneeze fetishist forum, your ISP (the company that gives you internet access, eg BT or Virgin) treats the services the same thanks to net neutrality laws. They can’t make certain sites load faster or slower, and they can’t make websites pay them to ensure their sites load quickly. 

Think of the internet as we know it as a road where everyone can drive at the same speed. Without net neutrality, certain people could pay more to cruise down the fast lane, with others stuck in a traffic jam of slow-loading sites. 

Yes, yes, but how will this affect me when I log on to the WWWs? 

There’s great speculation about what the loss of net neutrality means in practical terms. Extra buffering could mean you go back to spending money on porn and Blockbuster rises from the dead. It could mean people go back to single-player games instead of playing with people all around the world. Or it could mean those Facebook updates mums post saying that “Facebook is going to start charging for each status update TOMORROW, copy and paste to opt out” finally come true. 

Essentially, ISPs can now block, throttle and prioritise any content they like – but it remains to be seen how these powers will be used. If YouTube, for example, paid to be put in the “fast lane”, would it pass this cost on to the consumer and charge you £5.99 a month to watch Zoella’s latest apology? 

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But this change is a lot bigger than just extra buffering and bills. In essence, the repeal of net neutrality is a huge attack on American democratic freedoms, and a stark illustration of the corruption in the US government (check out this Motherboard article which lists all the members of Congress who voted to repeal net neutrality, alongside the money they’ve received from the telecoms industry throughout their careers). 

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The information and freedom we have enjoyed for decades online has helped us to learn, talk, break news, speak truth to power, and challenge the social order. We have more to lose than just porn. 

So what happens next, eh?

In the words of an inspirational quote superimposed over a landscape that I once saw on Instagram, “Stop living in regret, it’s not over yet!”

New York’s attorney general has announced a multi-state lawsuit against the net neutrality vote, essentially suing the FCC. There’s no telling how long the lawsuits could last, or even whether they will be successful. Companies will also most likely join the fight – Netflix, for example, has tweeted: “This is the beginning of a longer legal battle. Netflix stands w/ innovators, large & small, to oppose this misguided FCC order.” 

Bloody hell! How will this affect us Great Brits?

The FCC’s rules only apply to America, but we all know Theresa and Trump have a lot in common when it comes to internet freedoms. Currently, the Digital Economy Bill means “extreme” porn will be blocked in the UK from March 2018, with the government planning to enforce age-verification on all porn sites and block those which don’t comply. It’s easy to see this as the beginning of a crackdown on our online freedoms.

At present, however, the UK abides by the EU’s net neutrality rules, which are some of the strongest in the world. Thanks to these protections, our ISPs can’t block or throttle any sites. We have to wait and see how and whether this will change after Brexit. 

Yet even without an immediate change in the UK, this ruling should worry everyone. Everything we know and love about the internet is being challenged, and our children may be shocked and surprised at the freedoms we once enjoyed online.