LAST THURSDAY the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted by a three to two margin to move forward with chairman Tom Wheeler's proposals to gut net neutrality rules in the USA. But what exactly does that mean? And why should we, on a small island 3,000 miles away, care anyway?
It all started in January when US internet service provider (ISP) Verizon successfully appealed against FCC Open Internet Order 2010, arguing that because internet service had been classified as an "information service" rather than a "telecommunications service", the FCC had no right to enforce net neutrality rules under the common carrier regulations that had been the backbone of the 2010 rules, and a cornerstone of the Obama administration.
Since then, the FCC had been holding out from making a definite decision, beyond confirming that it did not plan to appeal the appellate court ruling.
There are two distinct arguments. Those who believe that every single bit of data should be treated the same, and those who think that instead, ISPs should be free to charge companies for large amounts of data.
Of course there is a third way, and that is what the FCC believes it has found, though in reality, it's just the second way, dressed up as the first.
Although there has been vocal protest throughout the proceedings, including a tent village occupying a small strip of grass opposite the FCC building in Washington, as well as a protester removed from the gallery during the hearing, the drive for public opinion really begins now. We are in a 60 day period of consultation during which the FCC will hear the opinions of interested parties. This will be followed by a further 60 days during which the FCC wil gather evidence and make its decisions.
In order to preserve net neutrality, the FCC could reclassify ISPs as "telecommunications services" under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, meaning that they would come under the same rules and regulations as the tightly controlled American telecoms networks.
The ISPs argue, however, that this would greatly impact their incomes, and therefore profit margins, and by way of flexing their muscles, they wrote a letter to the FCC arguing that, should the Title II reclassification take place, they would have to take the lost income out of preserving and upgrading the infrastructure of the network - effectively a blackmail notice.
For most of the rest of the world, however, this isn't a strong argument. Internet traffic has mushroomed in the past 12 years since the FCC classification of ISPs as "information services". Services such as Netflix have seen streaming video passing through the internet at a phenomenal rate. However, tempting as it might seem to charge Netflix extra for all the traffic it generates, in reality that opens a Pandora's box.
Suddenly the entire web, which has up to now been a democratic traffic system, will be divided into "haves" and "have nots" with the latter being made to suffer slower broadband speeds so that the ISPs can concentrate on making their profits from the big businesses.
Steve Wozniak recently published an open letter in defence of net neutrality, in which he pointed out exactly why no one should play God with technology. He wrote, "Imagine that when we started Apple we set things up so that we could charge purchasers of our computers by the number of bits they use. The personal computer revolution would have been delayed a decade or more. If I had to pay for each bit I used on my 6502 microprocessor, I would not have been able to build my own computers anyway."
Likening the paths of the internet to the real world transport system, he continued, "The roads are already paid for. You rarely hear people complain that roads are 'free'. The government shines when it comes to having provided us pathways to drive around our country. We don't think of the roadways as being negative like telecommunication carriers."
But why should we Europeans care? The EU, like Brazil, has already declared its support for the principles of net neutrality.
Unfortunately though, it's not quite that simple. Although the EU has declared its intent, the bill has to be passed into European law, with only the Dutch enshrining it in law thus far. However, according to a report in Buzzfeed, there's one member state proving difficult. No prizes for guessing which one.
"We wouldn't support anything that restricted our ability to block illegal material," a UK government spokesperson said. "We do not support any proposals that mean we cannot enforce our laws, including blocking child abuse images."
You can sort of see where the logic is, however, the big picture is that blocking the law, and therefore unblocking the internet, could mean that we, too could end up with a two-tier system, something that Ed Vaizey MP has openly admitted he is in favour of.
Loz Kaye of the UK Pirate Party retorted, "Ed Vaizey's approach and some of the noises coming from Conservative MEPs represent a direct attack on the founding principles of the world wide web - open communication and the spread of knowledge."
The UK is now in a vulnerable position. The Liberal Democrats have come out in favour of net neutrality, the Conservatives against. UKIP doesn't agree with anything Europe has to say anyway. Labour has come out largely in favour, although when the European vote took place, 10 of their MPs voted against.
With local elections on Thursday, and a general election in less than a year, the voting public is largely unaware that as well as deciding their local and European representatives, and the attitude to the economy, housing and social care - their votes could well decide the future of the internet. µ