What would happen if everything you saw was carefully curated by a third party? Could you tell the difference? We might find this out soon as the United State’s Federal Communication Commission – otherwise known as FCC – voted to repeal the Title II of the Communications Act which protects net neutrality on December 14th, 2017 despite a virulent opposition from virtually every American branch in the digital world.
This is not the last step. The Congress can still overturn FCC’s vote on revoking net neutrality. The principle is that Internet service providers – or ISPs - should deliver all content and applications to your home, at the same speed, regardless of the source, and without favoring, blocking or slowing down particular products or websites. However, that possibility is far from certain. Furthermore, if our southern neighbor ultimately chooses to repeal net neutrality, chances are that some of our local policy makers will also push to follow that path. Therefore, we should educate and be aware of what is bound to happen in the US for it might perhaps be our future.
Granted, contrary to the United States, in Canada, we are generally in favor of a neutral internet. Nevertheless, we also had mishaps in recent history. For example, in 2005, Telus censored a website criticizing them. Also, three years later, Bell’s traffic shaping, i.e. the practice of delaying certain datagram in order to make it appear slower, was deemed ‘’not discriminatory‘’ by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) in spite of discrimination being at the very root of traffic shaping. Lastly, in 2014, Xplornet used throttling technologies, meaning they were limiting the amount of data that could be sent or received by certain websites, but was not penalized for they had disclosed their policies and pledged to fix the problem. Mind you, these incidents all happened under net neutrality laws that are commonly referred as ‘’the strictest in the world‘’.
Abolishing net neutrality symbolizes that powerful ISPs will have the power to significantly influence what content prospers in the digital space by being authorized to slow down their competitors, unfavourable content and opposite ideologies. The impact of giving such power to ISPs can potentially be detrimental to marginalized communities. For instance, people of colour, religious minorities, the LGBTQ community and women, in some instances, are already severely misrepresented or failed by traditional media outlet. Therefore, they turn to a neutral internet, a free space, to tell their own stories, to educate themselves or others and to organize themselves in order to advance their respective causes. Consequently, revoking net neutrality would take that mean used to resist oppression away from these people.
Another possible impact of repealing net neutrality is the creation of a tiered and dollar-driven internet that would, of course, favour the wealthiest and disadvantage the poor and the middle class. Indeed, if ISPs are no longer required to treat all internet traffic equally, nothing stops them from favouring their own content and charging businesses and services to have their content load faster. Evidently, a relatively small number of businesses can afford to pay for such preferential treatment, which would result in making it tremendously more complex for smaller business to grow and compete with already established industry giants.
Moreover, withdrawing net neutrality means risking transforming current internet plans into cable-like plans where in addition to paying a basic subscription fee you would have to pay a supplement for videos, e-mail, gaming, social media, etc..
On another note, for many detractors of the Title II protecting net neutrality in the US, the government should not control the Internet using regulations such as net neutrality. On the opposite, it should be moderated by market forces. However, this argument fails to recognize that most Americans only have access to one internet service provider and, in Canada, a few ISPs still hold a monopole despite rules of the CRTC making it mandatory for them to share parts of their infrastructure with smaller ISPs . Thus, consumers have little to no way to put pressure on said ISPs. Additionally, the FCC has experimented for a decade with various policies aiming to ensure net neutrality. Nevertheless, they were all rejected and ruled insufficient by several courts except for the Title II, passed in 2015, which textually protects net neutrality.
Ultimately, whether you find net neutrality an issue worth dwelling upon is up to you. Personally, what worries me the most is not so much that there is a growing pression to revoke net neutrality because I believe in allowing others to express their views. Even though net neutrality rules are currently enforced in Canada, what I find disquieting is that so many of us seem indifferent, or worst, unaware that these net neutrality laws, which play such a central role in the way we use and experience the internet, might quit promptly be outlawed. So, my opening questions remains: what would happen if everything you saw was carefully curated by a third party? Could you really tell the difference?