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Explainer: Why Other Countries Care That The U.S. Ditched Net Neutrality

Activists gather before a hearing at the Federal Communications Commission on December 14 in Washington, D.C.
Activists gather before a hearing at the Federal Communications Commission on December 14 in Washington, D.C.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has hit the delete button on domestic rules protecting net neutrality.

The FCC voted 3-2 on December 14 to end the 2015 Open Internet Order and enact the Restoring Internet Freedom initiative, which is widely seen as giving Internet service providers (ISPs) more power to selectively limit Internet access while favoring certain data streams.

In large part, this is an internal battle within the United States over consumer choice and how the Internet will operate. Nonetheless, it also could have a significant impact beyond America's borders, especially for those who routinely interact with U.S.-based Internet services in their daily or professional lives.

Though you may not see the changes overnight, many critics say that, in the long run, Internet users around the world may not know what products or services they are missing out on because of the rollback of net neutrality in the United States.

What exactly is net neutrality?

Coined in 2003 by Columbia University professor Tim Wu, the phrase "net neutrality" refers to the principle that ISPs should treat all data provided to customers equally and without restriction to block out competitors. In essence, it keeps ISPs from choosing which data gets streamed at a faster rate and which websites are blocked or throttled.

Net neutrality was made official policy in 2015 through new FCC regulatory rules that treated ISPs as a public utility following extensive industry and public debate.

Why does net neutrality matter?

Net neutrality is the law in more than 40 countries, including the United States and the European Union. But with the shackles for U.S.-based ISPs off, equality in cyberspace may disappear.

Companies or individuals willing to pay more may get a freer, faster Internet service, which could lead to two classes of Internet user: one rich in money and information, the other poor in both.

“The ending of net neutrality in the U.S. could be the beginning of the end of the open, interoperable, free Internet,” said Quinn McKew, deputy executive director of ARTICLE 19 in the United Kingdom.

“It is now a question of how much, not if, freedom of expression online will be undermined around the world as a result of this shortsighted decision to enrich the entrenched near-monopolies who control Internet access in the United States.”

For example, if a company from the Balkans, Russia, or Central Asia develops its own video-streaming service, an ISP may slow its delivery because the provider has a competing service of its own unless the company agrees to pay additional fees to have its product streamed at higher rates.

And obviously it’s not only about entertainment.

The Public Library of Science (PLOS), a U.S.-based nonprofit open-access publisher and advocate dedicated to progress in science and medicine through a transformation in research communication, warned that allowing ISPs to sort traffic based on content, sender and receiver, opens the door for corporate and government censorship that would greatly hinder access to scientific information around the globe.

"If you want to promote any other culture in the U.S., and you start driving lots of [Internet] traffic through the U.S., and you have to go through these ISPs, they can throttle you," according to Dwayne Winseck, a professor at Carleton University in Ottawa and director of the Canadian Media Concentration Research Project.

Or, as Andrew McDiarmid, a senior policy analyst for the Center for Democracy and Technology, put it: “I think it’s a case that the U.S. remains a model for Internet policy for the world. Not having it here may make it less likely to have it in other places.”

Could dismantling it affect human rights?

As with many things, the United States is seen as a global leader on the Internet. Thus, many critics fear that a loosening of its regulatory system may embolden others to crack down on a completely open Internet.

Estelle Masse, senior policy analyst at Access Now, a digital-rights advocacy group, said the repeal of net neutrality rules would make the U.S. “an outlier on an issue of critical importance to the future of the Internet, both as an engine for innovation and a platform for human rights, to the detriment of users.”

Some critics say the erosion of net neutrality in world leaders such as the United States could prevent events such as the 2010 Arab Spring, when social media played an integral part in the movement to overthrow oppressive regimes.

“Americans aren’t the only ones who would be harmed by a U.S. decision to repeal net neutrality rules,” Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, said in response to the move to end net neutrality.

He says that as the most economically advanced country in the world, such a move by the United States could give the green light to repressive countries like Iran to continue applying the same policies.

“The Internet is the most valuable invention of the 20th century, and we should all be fighting to keep it free. As the birthplace of the Internet, the U.S. should be carrying the torch on net neutrality, not following in the footsteps of autocrats,” he said.

Could there be any benefits for foreign countries?

One of the arguments for rolling back net neutrality is that it hindered investment and innovation that threatened to harm the Internet’s continued ability to grow and evolve to meet consumers’ needs.

The ruling could end up being a boon to innovators outside the United States if American entrepreneurs find they are at a disadvantage because large companies are spending heavily to dominate fast-lane Internet access.

Jennifer Yeh, a policy counsel at Free Press, a Washington-based public interest group that advocates for an open Internet, noted that while the decision may limit supply of new content and developments for users outside the United States, it could push innovators to leave “for better opportunities elsewhere."

To that end, it appears as though some are ready to pounce on the opportunity.

“Maybe I shd [should] invite newly disadvantaged US startups to EU, so they have a fair chance,” tweeted Neelie Kroes, the European Union's commissioner for the digital agenda, during the debate in the United States on ending net neutrality.

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