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For years, there has been no shortage of talk about net neutrality, and the conversation is reaching its climax. The debate over whether the Internet should be an open platform or if it should remain subject to the policies and whims of big companies is one that impacts people across the world.
On February 26, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will take a vote about net neutrality. A previous article on the Hotspot Shield Blog delved into the details of that vote, but we haven’t yet discussed the potential worldwide ramifications of it. Where do other countries now stand on net neutrality, and is that likely to change after the FCC makes its decision?
Back in 2010, when the United States was just starting to tinker with the idea of net neutrality in the form of a failed FCC proposal, Chile became the first nation to adopt net neutrality as an official policy. The regulations in Chile also cover things like parental control, network security, and virus protection.
How did the modern Chilean laws on net neutrality come about? It started when lobbyists used a series of tests that found that one of the country’s Internet operators, VTR, intentionally slowed down peer-to-peer communication. In fact, that activity was already illegal, but the attention that the lobbyists brought to the incident spurred new legislation.
Something similar happened in the Netherlands, which was the second country to embrace net neutrality officially. As Tech Policy Daily explains, “net neutrality rules were passed in Parliament in just two months from the time that KPN (the incumbent telco) revealed that it could use deep packet inspection (DPI) to monetize users of WhatsApp. DPI was already illegal in the Netherlands… However the incident turned into a publicity frenzy and politicians took the opportunity to grandstand as supporters of consumers.”
The Netherlands’ prompt action regarding net neutrality is impressive when you consider how the rest of the European Union has approached the issue. The debate started there more than a decade ago, and it remains ongoing. Because net neutrality seems like a good thing on the surface, why is Europe manifesting such hesitation?
The answer lies in Europe’s conflicting priorities. On one hand, the EU wants businesses to thrive and stimulate economic growth across the Union. On the other hand, true net neutrality would limit the power of ISPs and perhaps in turn hinder the progress of innovative big businesses. The EU is ever striving to find the right balance.
The EU’s dealings with net neutrality have been something of an intricate dance — or you might define it as more of a roller coaster. Shifting policies and the task of weighing consumer welfare against economic welfare have resulted in Europe’s current policy. Basically, their approach is that ISPs should be reasonable in how they manage their networks, considering both their own interests and those of Internet users.
As Financier Worldwide explains it, the current policy “advocates that an approach be taken which sits somewhere between a light-touch approach, at one extreme, to one which seeks to eliminate market power, promote consumer awareness, increase transparency, and to lower switching costs for end-users, at the other.”
Is that really a viable approach? Perhaps officials think that if an ISP blocks certain websites or delivers some content slower than others, unhappy consumers can always switch to a different ISP, so there is no need for tighter regulations. That line of thought seems like a slippery slope and puts a lot of trust in big businesses.
Sure, Mexico is not the first country to come to mind when you think of tech-savvy nations, but Mexico is actually something of a model for net neutrality. They have one of the strictest policies in the world, and they consider access to the Internet to be a human right.
Some of Mexico’s Internet rules are not dissimilar to rules that the FCC will vote on at the end of this month. The regulations include things like not allowing ISPs to discriminate between different types of content while still allowing ISPs to manage their networks, so content is delivered in the most efficient manner possible. ISPs that refuse to comply with the regulations can face fines that equal one to three percent of the service provider’s revenue.
Mexico’s rules are part of the country’s set of laws. If the FCC passes the proposed net neutrality rules, they will not be official laws. However, Congress may affect legislation on the issue later on.
Back in 2010, shortly after the FCC’s first failed attempt at passing net neutrality regulations, a senior policy analyst for the Center for Democracy and Technology, noted, “I think it’s a case that the U.S. remains a model for Internet policy for the world. Not having it here may make it less likely to have it in other places.” Indeed, net neutrality has seen slow progress across the world since 2010. Of course, it would be presumptuous to say that this is because the United States does not have a set of regulations, but it could certainly be a factor.
The future of net neutrality, particularly in Europe, could feel the impact of the imminent FCC vote. If the proposal passes, the EU will have a framework they can use when they consider future policy changes.
The Internet is a public realm, and the issue of who should control it — and how much control they should have — is a powerful topic. It seems likely that the FCC will pass the net neutrality proposal, but what happens after that? Will ISPs adapt and embrace the change, or will big business continue to battle net neutrality? We wait with bated breath to find out.
The most significant consequences of the vote may be those that happen outside U.S. borders. Countries that already have net neutrality regulations may rethink them, while countries that lack rules may reconsider them.
Cyberspace is as much a part of daily life for some people as are electricity and roads; it is part of an essential, international infrastructure. That is why it is safe to say that the debate surrounding the Internet’s openness will continue to have a significant worldwide impact.