‘Net neutrality’ is a phrase you will soon hear more often. This is partly because of Donald Trump’s choice to run the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), but also because of Brexit.
So, what is net neutrality? It is the principle that internet service providers (ISPS), like BT and Virgin, should allow their users equal, unfettered access to all internet content, irrespective of where it comes from, and not block or favour any particular websites. There was a fuss a while ago when it came out that some ISPS were sending some online services down the line faster than those in which they had no financial interest, as well as slowing down competitors offering something similar. This discovery caused some governments to legislate to regulate the internet as if it were a public utility, like water or electricity. Europe has followed this course, as has America.
However, Mr Trump’s appointee at the FCC, a lawyer called Ajit Pai, sees regulation of any sort as intrinsically bad and believes that suppliers should be able to do business as they wish. And of course, no one knows what will happen here after Brexit.
It’s a thorny business. On the one hand Mr Pai wants to reduce regulation in the name of free trade, which sounds convincing enough, but those in favour of net neutrality say that it’s free trade that will be at risk if neutrality is abandoned. In no time your ISP would become something like a publisher, making it easier for you to look at sites that benefit the ISP financially, and possibly even block access to competitors.
Opponents of net neutrality say this is nonsense, and that the market place will act as regulator. I’ve no doubt it will, but my suspicion is that, without regulation, ISPS will quickly start offering different levels of service to those who will pay more; indeed, they are already saying, with some justification, that there is little incentive for them to install costly new high-speed connections if they can’t milk them for income later.
Of course, in some countries, they laugh at such niceties. The Great Firewall of China forces all Chinese web traffic through a single government-controlled route, which allows them not only to have a look at what you are up to (if they can be bothered) but also to arbitrarily block or slow access to websites they don’t like. Google, Youtube, Facebook and Twitter are all blocked sites, for example.
Chinese people can get around it by using a virtual private network (VPN), which is a third-party service that confounds the government watchers; they can see you are connected to the VPN but they can’t see what you are doing beyond that. VPNS are openly used by millions of people in China, and are very popular, except with the authorities. They’ve tried to crack down on VPNS before, but recent developments suggest that they are doing so with renewed vigour.
Late in January it was announced that VPN companies would have to seek Chinese government approval to continue, and it’s hard to see VPNS that circumvent the Great Firewall being granted a licence. Moreover, anyone who runs a VPN operating without a licence will be ‘severely punished according to law’, which in China is a fairly chilling prospect
So we are faced with an odd choice, which leads to no choice at all. Either you have a free-for-all à la Trump, which will involve someone else (the ISPS) deciding which sites we can see, or you follow the Chinese route, which involves, guess what, someone else (the government) deciding which sites we can see. The devil and the deep blue sea spring to mind. It all makes me keen on regulation, not words I ever thought I would say.