Former FCC Chair Tom Wheeler wanted to see the concept “Net Neutrality” ― the idea that the web be free of all restrictions ― firmly embedded into law. The New FCC Chair, Ajit Pai, called the net neutrality rules a “mistake” according to his prepared remarks provided to the press.
The old net neutrality rules let the agency regulate the internet as a public utility placing greater restrictions on broadband providers like Comcast and AT&T from deliberately speeding up or slowing down traffic from specific websites and apps. In short, the rules intended to prevent providers from playing favorites. “Net neutrality” was to apply to all content, sites, platforms, on the kinds of equipment that may be attached, and on all modes of communication. Seemed like is a wonderful idea.
Certainly in the U.S. and, if America acted decisively, maybe elsewhere too, the concept of “net neutrality” would be a worldwide phenomena. For that reason Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State, wisely made development and operation of the internet a matter of foreign policy.
Unfortunately, other countries do not always share our model. And the current FCC has decided (currently it is being litigated anew) it really doesn’t matter to the world markets, which is already being “splinterized,” or put differently, going its own way. Already, speeds vary greatly around the world, as does the cost for basic access. Indeed, in Japan, Korea and Finland, internet speeds are blazing fast and cheap compared to those less fortunate users in other countries. Many other nations too, have seen the internet as existing media, and regulating cost and access likewise, prohibiting certain URLs or regulating use and content.
A few years ago it was reported that Netflix would pay Comcast “for a direct connection between its servers and Comcast’s, so that Netflix’s traffic didn’t have to go through the interconnect companies. As if by magic, Netflix speeds went up again,” at least until the Feds started making inquiries. While this effort didn’t pass muster in the U.S., others may be reluctant to pass on the offer.
The concept of “free speech” doesn’t exist in most foreign markets, and Italy, indeed the EU, has already moved to hold Google and its executives personally liable for text, photographs or videos made available on YouTube, thus posing a significant challenge to the company’s business model, along with those of other internet companies like Facebook and Twitter.
Only two years ago, South Korea blocked Google users of the local version of its YouTube video service from uploading material after the government imposed rules requiring contributors to register with their real names. France enacted a law allowing internet connections to be cut off if a user is pirating copyrighted material. Germany has rejected that approach, but Britain is watching the outcomes of the law with interest.
Former President Nicolas Sarkozy of France has been talking about even tougher measures against file sharing, calling for tests of technology that filters unlicensed music and movies from the Internet. And Australian Internet service providers suggest that they could soon have the most restrictive Internet regime in the Western world because of proposals pending in their legislature. The UK most recently has floated tougher restrictions on social media to help fight terrorism. Controlling “hate” speech is now a challenge in the UK, France and several countries who see social media as one way to control fake news and inflammatory material.
And China, as we know, has already forced Google to move its operations to Hong Kong and it’s Communist leaders have long tried to balance their desire for a thriving internet and the economic growth it promotes with their demands for political control. Indeed, there are over 3000 Internet police in China regulating what is accessible, restricting access to web sites they deem politically incorrect, or contrary to public order.
When former Secretary Clinton paid tribute to the power of the internet both for opening new forums for the exchange of ideas and for fostering social and economic development. she said, “the internet can serve as a great equalizer. By providing people with access to knowledge and potential markets, networks can create opportunity where none exists.”
That was then, this is now. Such policy efforts by the U.S. State Department seemed like another wonderful idea. However, America simply doesn’t set the rules anymore as it once did.