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Do we need net neutrality?

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by December 16, 2017 General

DECEMBER 17 — So over in the United States a body called the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) voted earlier this week to repeal US regulations that have, since 2014, mandated net neutrality.

Net neutrality is basically the principle that all data on the internet should be treated the same. YouTube videos, emails, peer to peer downloads; Internet Services Providers (ISPs) should ensure that access to all these services is equal.

Legislation to ensure net neutrality exists in order to prevent ISPs (which are often mobile phone networks or cable TV companies) from levying specific fees for specific content or blocking certain content.

So, users can’t be charged for using Facebook or charged a premium for high speed YouTube videos and even if an ISP doesn’t like peer to peer downloads, it can’t move to slow them down. If you have a 10mbps connection, that speed should apply to everything you do online.

Broadly, proponents of net neutrality argue the internet should be treated along the lines of a utility — like electricity or water. Everyone should receive fundamentally the same service and be charged on the same basis i.e. in terms of water everyone (on a network) receives the same water, some customers don’t get premium and others ordinary water.

This seems logical and fair: no one wants to be charged for accessing specific services and who wants ISPs choosing to slow down the sites and data I want.

However, net neutrality legislation has always been controversial. Many economists, technology companies and of course ISPs argue that regulating the internet in this manner is unfair given the complexity of internet services and the continuous investments needed to keep systems competitive.

Chairman Ajit Pai speaks ahead of the vote on the repeal of net neutrality rules at the Federal Communications Commission in Washington on December 14, 2017. — Reuters picChairman Ajit Pai speaks ahead of the vote on the repeal of net neutrality rules at the Federal Communications Commission in Washington on December 14, 2017. — Reuters picService providers argue that companies like Facebook and Google make enormous profits off the back of infrastructure paid for by ISPs.

In fact, companies like Skype or WhatsApp use the cable, wires and 4G networks built by ISPs — which are often mobile phone companies — to offer services (like calls and messaging) that takes revenue away from these ISPs. In some markets, ISPs charge services like Google for the data it sends over their networks.

But do we really want service providers to be able to challenge and charge certain sites and services?

In some cases, ISPs have been known to throttle the data (reduce the speed) of sites they don’t like. For example, an ISP which also operates cable TV networks may be keen to throttle Netflix.

This is in fact a complex and rather major issue which will affect the structure and pricing of the internet which is now an essential part of life for billions of human beings.

This is also not just a US issue, what happens in the US will set a precedent globally. Recently there has been a push towards net neutrality laws; Singapore too has some neutrality safeguards though throttling which allows ISPs to slow down certain sites is permitted.

Some online coverage therefore has painted a very dark picture of the effects this decision will have. There are thousands of articles arguing the end of net neutrality is going to usher in a dark age where ISPs will exclude less profitable users or disruptive services.

However, before you panic keep in mind that for most of its 30-year+ history the internet has been largely unregulated and it’s worked pretty well.

In fact, the lack of regulation and oversight bodies seems to have helped the web grow quickly and successfully. So, is turning the internet into a stodgy utility really a good thing?

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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