In the United States, it’s been a grueling several months for the open internet. And it’s about to get worse.
In early 2017, Ajit Pai of the Federal Communications Commision (FCC) — the agency regulating the United States’ broadband, radio, and other communications infrastructure — announced his plans to roll back net neutrality rules from 2015. And on December 14, Pai and his fellow FCC commissioners will almost certainly vote to enact those plans along partisan lines.
For Americans, this means an internet with less competition, less innovation, and less free expression. Without net neutrality, deep-pocketed internet service providers (ISPs) can block or throttle any and all internet content. Americans’ favorite journalism portals, or their small business websites, could load a lot slower — or not at all.
For the rest of the world, the impact is negligible — right?
Not so. Some observers outside the United States may shrug at a foreign country’s internet regulations; others may presume a plethora of ISPs in their own country serves as a counterweight. But the United States’ repeal of net neutrality would have a deep and far-reaching impact internationally. Here’s why.
Leading by example
Internet policy — from net neutrality to laws governing artificial intelligence — can be new terrain. There aren’t always precedents to guide new rules. As a result, it’s critical to have reliable exemplars whenever and wherever possible — countries and unions with tried-and-true stables of fair, democratic, inclusive internet regulations.
In early 2015, the United States was among those exemplars when it came to net neutrality. The FCC — urged on by millions of vocal Americans — voted for strong net neutrality protections. The move enshrined (for two years, at least) the internet as a level playing field controlled by users, not ISPs. Later that year, the European Union passed its own strong net neutrality rules, as part of the Telecoms Single Market. The next year, thanks in part to public outrage at Facebook’s attempt to implement its “Free Basics” program, the Indian telecom regulator also made moves to enshrine net neutrality into into the legal code, culminating in the adoption of a strong law in November 2017.
Conversely, the United States abandoning support for the open internet would not only signal a break from other major economies, it would also be a wink to global regulators that it’s possible to get away with outrageous handouts to internet service providers, no matter the harm to competition, free speech, or innovation.
One of the most compelling arguments for net neutrality is its ability to empower the little guys. By ensuring all online traffic is equal, small businesses and startups can compete with entrenched players. One-time startups like Netflix can grow into behemoths. And then, new startups can emerge to compete with Netflix. How? Content on both sites will load at the same speed.
Without net neutrality, this dynamic changes. ISPs can suddenly charge a hefty fee for speedy service. Existing behemoths like Netflix may be able to pay to play — and will likely pass the expense on to consumers. But startups and small businesses cannot. They’ll wither, leaving behind a select few powerful corporations. Further, businesses in the UK and everywhere in the world would face challenges — and possibly fees — in reaching American internet users.
The latest net neutrality drama may be playing out on U.S. soil, but it’s very much a global issue. If the open internet in the United States suffers a blow, citizens in London, Rio de Janeiro, Nairobi, and elsewhere would feel the consequences. In the coming weeks and months, it’s more important than ever for Americans, but also citizens around the world, to engage with their governments and demand fair, common-sense policies for the internet.
Ashley Boyd is vice president of advocacy at the Mozilla Foundation.