A UBC prof discusses how an upcoming FCC ruling on net neutrality could impact consumers in the U.S. and Canada
On May 15, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is expected to vote on proposed regulations that could challenge the long-held principle of ‘net neutrality,’ which posits that Internet service providers (ISPs) treat all Internet traffic equally.
Critics say the proposed regulations, which arose after telecom giant Verizon won an appeals court challenge against the FCC earlier this year, open the door for ISPs to charge content providers a fee for speedier access to the Internet, creating a two-tiered system where large companies like Netflix could offer consumers faster-streaming content than their smaller competitors.
Ron Cenfetelli, an associate professor at the Sauder School of Business who specializes in technology management, explains the issue of net neutrality and why consumers in the U.S. and Canada should be paying attention to the FCC’s upcoming decision.
In layman’s terms, what is ‘net neutrality’?
It means that all Internet traffic is treated equally. In the absence of net neutrality, some “bits” would be given priority over other bits. Think of it like a HOV lane on the highway. Without net neutrality protection, any entity providing content might have to pay a toll to allow their content to be consumed at the same speed as other entities. In fact, Netflix has begun paying such a toll to Comcast, a major U.S. Internet service provider, to offer higher-quality streaming video to its customers.
Another analogy I use is electricity. BC Hydro does not provide you any more or less current/voltage depending on the device you plug into the wall. Yet, some Internet service providers want to do just that. They want to provide differing levels of service contingent upon the content that is consumed. Arguably, a consumer pays an Internet service provider for a certain number of bits and a certain bandwidth or speed. It is inherently unfair to then discriminate on the basis of where those bits come from.
Why is it important to preserve net neutrality?
It could influence choices that consumers make regarding what content they consume. For example, if a video content provider has its content slowed down or “throttled,” it is likely consumers would choose a different content provider that doesn’t face such throttling.
Another reason for preserving net neutrality is that open access is an inherent design attribute of the Internet. Arguably, it was this open access that fostered innovative firms such as Amazon and Google. With the expectation of the FCC ruling in favour of access fees, there are already reports that venture capital firms may steer away from investing in online firms that rely on having open access.
An increasing absence of net neutrality would also lead to the privatization of the Internet. A key aspect of the Internet’s design is that no one party “owns” the Net. It has been a truly public platform. With the addition of fees based upon content, Internet service providers will be more gatekeeper than provider.
What could the Federal Communications Commission ruling mean for Canada?
Certainly, if the U.S. doesn’t protect net neutrality, that may condone similar legislation here in Canada through the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.
Like many aspects of the Internet, rulings are constantly evolving. That is the case with the expected FCC ruling in mid-May. We may begin to see a shift away from net neutrality. This kind of issue shows the challenge of governance of the Internet. Over the centuries, changes to laws have occurred at a pace that is now being challenged by rapid technological change.