Culture

The US Just Scrapped Net Neutrality. Here’s Why That’s A Huge Problem For Everyone.

They're breaking the internet, and not in a good way.

A few hours ago, the US media regulator made a really, really bad decision. In a 3-2 vote,it decided to scrap something known as net neutrality. It’s a move opponents say could mark the end of the free and open internet.

Here’s how that works: “net neutrality” refers to rules requiring internet service providers to treat all content on the internet equally. That means the company that provides your internet doesn’t get to choose which sites load faster than others, or block content they don’t like, or charge you more to access services provided by their competitors. Imagine paying more for an internet plan that allows you to access Netflix, or having Netflix blocked if your internet service provider runs its own streaming service, like, say Stan.

By scrapping net neutrality this morning, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has opened the door for all of the above to happen. While we’re probably not going to see dramatic immediate changes, it’s a big deal, and yes — there will probably be flow-on effects in Australia. Here’s what you need to know.

How’d This Happen?

Net neutrality has been a battleground in the US for many years now. The actual rules that were scrapped this morning are relatively recent — after years of court battles between internet service providers and activists, President Obama took a powerful stand on the side of internet freedom in 2015, and net neutrality came into legal effect.

But internet service providers and some Republicans have always opposed these laws, saying they raise costs and stifle investment (which is true in the sense that net neutrality stops internet companies from taking big payouts from services who want their websites to load faster and get priority service).

In 2015, though, there weren’t enough Republicans on the FCC to stop net neutrality. Today there were, thanks to the bane of everyone’s existence: Donald Trump.

How Will It Affect Australia?

The rules the FCC overturned today only govern US internet service providers. Australia doesn’t even have net neutrality laws of its own. While it’s not immediately clear how the US changes will affect Australia, it’s worth noting that a lot of the problems critics are worried about will have impacts worldwide.

Supporters of net neutrality argue a free and open internet is the reason we have so many of the websites and services we love and use today. Small businesses, art and cool content thrive on the internet because they’re all treated equally to the big players: the barrier to entry for new ideas has always been low, and has allowed companies like Spotify and Netflix, for example, to compete with big established music and tv providers.

As Evan Greer, campaign director for pro-net neutrality group Fight for the Future told the Guardian, the end of net neutrality means “so many of the best ideas will be lost, squashed by the largest corporations at the expense of the global internet-using public.” It’s hard to say what we’ll be missing out on, because we’ll likely never know.

Can We Fight This?

People will certainly try. There have already been huge protests online and offline all week, and the FCC received a record 22 million comments from the general public ahead of the vote, most in favour of keeping net neutrality in place.

You’ve probably seen some of the protests on your social media feeds — buffering symbols everywhere, and lots of sites blacking out their services in protest.

Polling makes it pretty clear that most people want to keep a free and open internet. The pioneers and creators of the internet want a free and open internet. Companies like Netflix and Spotify want a free and open internet, because it’s what made their services possible in the first place.

At the moment, fans of net neutrality are trying to push for Congress to step in and pass a resolution of disapproval to overturn the FCC’s decision. There’s are also a number of legal challenges brewing, though details on those are scarce so far.

What’s clear at the moment is that net neutrality won’t go down without a fight, but with the White House and a lot of powerful interests on the anti-net neutrality side, it’s going to be a tough one. You can keep up to date and learn more over at Fight For The Future, which also has resources to help you get involved, if you want.

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Feature image via Fight for the Future.