America's Net Neutrality fail

I was on TVNZ's Breakfast programme this morning talking about the forthcoming decisions in Washington DC to remove Obama-era open Internet protections. You can catch the interview on TVNZ's site here.

It's not always easy to convey what is at stake. The analogy I have been using a bit is this: Imagine your local Council signed an exclusive deal with Toyota to support their car sales. Toyota pays a fee to the Council. In return, when you're driving on local roads, if you have a Toyota you're fine. If you drive another car, funny things happen - you hit speedbumps in unexpected places, and the parking costs a lot more.

Sound fair? Didn't think so. Roads should be open for use whatever your car. The Internet should be open for use whatever (lawful) content you're looking for.

In truth, the fate of the open Internet rules in the U.S. was sealed with the election of Donald Trump in 2016. The Federal Communications Commission, the regulator responsible for communications matters, is a partisan body. Three of the five commissioners are always of the President's party. The huge telco firms in the U.S. that have gone big into the content game (think AT&T and their tie up with Time Warner, despite the fact another arm of US government is trying to block that merger) want to be free of the open Internet rules. They want to be able to charge over-the-top providers of content, or to give their own content offerings a better quality of service.

The new FCC Chair, Mr Pai, will replace the obligation for openness with one of transparency. The doctrine seems to be, require the ISP to declare what they're doing, and leave it to consumer choice.

Nice idea, but the American problem is that in many regions the only fast broadband is cable. That infrastructure isn't communal like in NZ with Chorus - it's owned by the retailer. So shopping around for another ISP is more fantasy than fact. 

14 December will mark a bleak day in the U.S.  In the short run little is likely to change. But the demise of the open Internet obligations opens the door to behaviour that, if it became widespread, would limit innovation and growth in services available online.

Our vision at InternetNZ is firmly in favour of open. You, the subscriber to an Internet connection, should be able to choose among the vast array of content and services available to you and to get it without fear or favour. Because we don't have that triple tie up here of network, ISP and big content ownership, this is less of an issue here today. 

We're keeping our eyes open on this issue. You can help - read more on the topic (e.g. here's a handy discussion document we wrote a little while ago). Share your views on social media. Talk about the topic with MPs if you meet them. All of us are stewards of the open Internet, and all of us can help.