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Saying goodbye to a neutral net
In a week where the Federal Communications Commission went against the wishes of the American people in favour of a handful of giant corporations, Slarek ponders of the negative impact of repealing Net Neutrality.
17 December 2017

Regular site visitors will have long ago noticed that my pledge to post a blog each weekend, regardless of circumstances, went tits-up even before the circumstances in question made it difficult to find the time for even such trivial endeavours. I’ve already covered the specifics of this situation in my sole November blog and see no need to repeat myself here. The situation currently remains unchanged and we just don’t know what will happen next and when. It did occur to me, however, that just knocking out a few words about film or site-related things that have been on my radar this week is hardly as taxing as writing an in-depth review, so that’s effectively what we have here. And the thing that’s been on my mind this week is the thorny subject of Net Neutrality.

If you’ve been following the consistently woeful developments in the frankly jaw-dropping world of American politics of late, you’ll be aware that last Thursday the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), lead by creepily smiley chairman Ajit Pai, voted 3-2 to repeal an Obama-era protection known as Net Neutrality. If you live in the USA, this is a big deal, but it also has the potential to impact internet users the world over. Net Neutrality had a single laudable aim; to ensure that all web sites were treated equally by Internet Service Providers (ISPs), companies we all have to sign up to in order to access the internet at all. Under the rules of Net Neutrality, an ISP could not give preferential treatment to one web site or service – such as one owned and run by the ISP in question – and throttle the bandwidth of a rival, or even block sites whose content the ISP in question might somehow object to. The principles of Net Neutrality ensure that the playing field is level for all web sites and services, whether they be large corporations, or the small businesses and hobbyists for whom the internet has opened a door to potential customers, one that a few years ago simply never existed. It’s all about fairness and equal access and treatment and enabling innovation. So why on earth would anyone want to dismantle that?

When Donald Trump was on the campaign trail, he made a big noise about wanting to “drain the swamp,” a term he used for the prosed elemination of corruption of governmental politics, but since he has come to power the swamp in question has become more pungent than ever. Politicians no longer even try to hide their corrupt practices, and simply cry “Fake news!” every time they are called out on it. American ISPs are some of the world’s biggest corporations, and such companies have ultimately one goal, to make as much money as they can any way they are permitted. The four main American internet providers – Comcast, AT&T, Time Warner and Verizon – are all opposed to Net Neutrality and have spent millions of dollars lobbying politicians to hasten its repeal. Why? Because by repealing Net Neutrality, the FCC is to allow these huge corporations to set their own rules how the internet should be run, what sites can be accessed, and whether the user should have to pay extra for certain services, such as video streaming from a rival company or even video messaging, things many have come to take for granted as being easily accessible to all. If your favourite political commentary site doesn’t share the values of your ISP, then you could find that it no longer loads, or does so at such a crawl that you give up and go elsewhere. And in America, a land in which competition is frequently cited as a cornerstone of capitalism – a staggering number of people do not have the option of switching ISPs. According the FCC’s own data, 129 million Americans – that’s approximately 40% of the population – only have access to the internet via a single ISP, which effectively gives them a monopoly and protects them from having to compete with a more Net Neutrality friendly firm, should one ever exist, of course. And if you’re wondering why the FCC would embark on a course of action that is opposed by 83% of American internet users – including 75% of Republicans – and hand this level of power over to a small group of unaccountable and monopolistic mega-corporations, consider the fact that FCC chairman Ajit Pai was previously employed by Verizon, one of the companies that have been so aggressively lobbying for Net Neutrality’s demise.

For American consumers, these are early days, but while the expectation is that the ISPs will not immediately start throttling content and charging more for faster and freer internet access, there are already clear signs that such changes are on the way. And while you may not think this affects you if you reside outside of the US, consider the long-term impact this action could have on some of your favourite sites. Cine Outsider is unusual in not making a penny for its contributors or its persistently tired editor, due largely to my refusal to allow advertising on the site (not that we’d make much, but still). Other sites, however, rely on that advertising revenue in order to survive, and if some of them find that users are unable to easily access their content in a country with such a large potential audience, their visitor count could drop to the point where advertisers pull their support, and those sites could ultimately disappear as a result. Dissenting voices on both sides of the political spectrum could find themselves stifled, and we could even see sites that post negative reviews of films or TV shows that have been funded or distributed by the corporations in question quietly moved to the slow lane or blocked for many users. And what if these corporations start demanding fees from sites and services in order to guarantee that the public have free access to them? They did it in the past and it seems unlikely they’d choose not to do it again now that the reins are off. And once they start charging streaming services like Netflix more for ensuring unbuffered access to their product, expect that increased cost to be passed on to the consumer. That’s you, that is.

For the UK, this also could be a future issue. Europe has its own Net Neutrality rules, but as you may have noticed, our woeful excuse for a government is currently making an absolute pig's ear of trying to pull us out of Europe, and once this process is eventually completed, we will no longer be able to count on this protection. What that will mean for our own internet access in the future is uncertain, and may depend in part on how desperate the government gets to strike trade deals with America in post-Brexit Britain, and what concessions they will be expected to make for such agreements. At the first sign of any such move in the UK, anyone who uses and appreciates an open internet should organise and plan their protest action accordingly, lest we find ourselves a few years down the line looking back at the sort of even-handed and uncensored internet access that most (though not all) of us are enjoying now through sadly nostalgic eyes.

If you’re looking for a cheerfully partisan (and uncensored, so beware) summary of the downside of repealing Net Neutrality, check out this spot-on video from Extremely Decent: