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Net neutrality

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The US’s top media regulator voted to end rules protecting an open internet this week, in a move critics warn will hand control of the future of the web to cable and telecoms companies. The fiercely-contested decision was barely announced before several law enforcement authorities in New York and California pledged to fight it in court but the ripples of the decision will affect the rest of the world.   

At a packed meeting of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in Washington, the watchdog’s commissioners voted three to two to dismantle the “net neutrality” rules that prevent Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from charging websites more for delivering certain services or blocking others should they, for example, compete with services the cable company also offers.  

Net neutrality activists believe the decision will handover more power to a handful of multibillion dollar corporations that could have the power to limit how everyone uses the internet. Net neutrality or the freedom of the internet has already been hampered by large corporations such as Google, which earlier this year was slapped with a $2.7 billion fine by the European Union (EU) after a seven-year investigation found that its service, called Froogle, which allowed its users to compare products and prices online, was unfairly promoting businesses that advertised with Google. The investigators also found that over several years Google also undermined traffic to its competitor websites and resulting in the loss of revenue to companies across 31 countries.

Google in September appealed the verdict and maintains that it did not participate in anticompetitive activities. Yet the overarching power of large internet companies and how they can impact the entire world remains a concern. Republican-appointed FCC Chairman Ajit Pai believes his plan would scrap “heavy-handed” rules adopted in 2015 which he argued discouraged investment and innovation. He and his supporters have argued that the “light touch” rules provided to companies would not change user experiences significantly and most people would not even be aware that a selective numbers of companies have been given more power. 

Net neutrality’s advocates argue that an open internet has been essential to the creation of today’s web, and has allowed companies like Skype to compete with telecoms providers and Netflix to change the media landscape. They say the removal of the rules will affect consumers worldwide.

Detractors also remain skeptical as the decision gives internet service providers an explicit license to block, slow, or levy tolls on content. ISPs that spent a significant amount of money lobbying for the new rules did so because they see a revenue advantage in the change and are likely to use the chance to recoup their funds from internet users. Unfortunately, even though billions of people around the world use the internet on a daily basis, they have limited power to ensure that the public interest aspect of the internet is maintained. 

Killing net neutrality in the US could impact internet users all over the world. Contrary to improving innovation, it could well do the opposite – resulting in the best ideas being lost, squashed by the largest corporations at the expense of the global internet-using public.

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