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Saving the internet: are new laws about to end net neutrality?

The end of net neutrality?
Campaigners believe the internet as we know it is under threat

Internet regulation has once again entered the spotlight this year, with the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) proposing its new Open Internet rule that threatens to impose quite the opposite of what its name suggests.

The regulations look set to benefit the web's richest players, with ISPs allowed to offer greater exposure to the highest spenders, creating a bleak outlook for the smaller content providers and those who fight for 'net neutrality'.

To get the low-down in the FCC proposals, the opposition, and what all this means for the internet, we fired some questions at James McGough, director of the Broadband World Series for Informa.

TechRadar Pro: Firstly, what defines net neutrality?

James McGough: Essentially, net neutrality is a rule that gives us freedom of speech online – without intervention. The internet encourages users to innovate and express themselves and all data shared online is treated equally and fairly by the ISPs (internet service providers).

This means that, regardless of whether the data is in the form of an app from a major content provider or a video from a small provider, every website is given the same priority when travelling through the internet. There are no 'fast lanes'.

TRP: What exactly is the latest debate about?

JM: The FCC voted to propose a new Open Internet rule in the US on 15th May. The latest announcement marks only the beginning of a long battle on net neutrality.

If approved, ISPs would be allowed to charge content companies for priority treatment, which would consequently relegate other content to a 'slower lane'.

The public reaction to the announcement has been indicative of how passionate people feel about protecting the integrity of the internet. Activists have been rallying across the US to fight against the FCC from turning the internet into a platform for corporate speech and another tool for government spying.

It is inevitable, in today's data-hungry net world, that the changing landscape of the internet will affect every business and consumer across the globe. However, the US is back-pedalling by putting the power of the internet in the hands of ISPs.

Its 'fast-lane' approach is reminiscent of cable and satellite TV, which will lead to ISPs favouring larger corporations that promise to bring the biggest commercial return and therefore discriminating against smaller firms that are actually the lifeblood of our economy.

TRP: Where does the EU stand in the debate?

JM: With the US now set to implement the 'fast-lane' approach, European broadband providers have every right to be concerned.

In March, the EU voted for net neutrality but, with the FCC giving ISPs the ability to control the speed of broadband services to European customers, the EU might have no choice but to change its mind.

The EU needs to stand firm on its call to reverse the trend for the big players to control the internet through traffic management and network speeds.

TRP: What does it mean for enterprises?

JM: What the majority of enterprises don't realise is that internet service providers (ISPs) are already prioritising some internet traffic over others. Earlier this year, Netflix agreed to pay a fee to Comcast and Verizon to improve the speed of its monthly streaming service in Europe as well as America.

Ultimately, the FCC's plans will limit the open access nature of the internet, and this will only threaten the freedom of speech and exchange of ideas from the small innovators as well as force consumers to change to a larger, favoured, competitor.

In fact, enterprises argue that the internet must remain truly open, affordable, and fast if they are to sustain an economical future.

Desire Athow

Managing Editor, TechRadar Pro

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website building and web hosting when DHTML and frames were en vogue and started writing about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium. Then followed a weekly tech column in a local business magazine in Mauritius, a late night tech radio programme called Clicplus and a freelancing gig at the now-defunct, Theinquirer, with the legendary Mike Magee as mentor. Following an eight-year stint at where he discovered the joys of global techfests, Désiré now heads up TechRadar Pro. He has an affinity for anything hardware and staunchly refuses to stop writing reviews of obscure products or cover niche B2B software-as-a-service providers.