The Flintstones

Net Neutrality – what the US vote means for UK businesses in plain English

The FCC in America recently voted to repeal Net Neutrality.  What does this mean for us, and what does it actually mean?  Fred and Barney may not be impressed.

We were on Twitter last night, and someone was replying to a news tweet about Net Neutrality.  The person posted and said (using much more colourful language) that they just didn’t understand what the problem was.  And they aren’t alone.

What is Net Neutrality?

Put simply – Net Neutrality is a law that says all data on the Internet should be treated the same.   ISP (Internet Service Providers) cannot block or slow down traffic from sites or providers without legal jurisdiction.  Examples of such blocking include sites delivering illegal content or sites infected with malware.

What did America do and why are they doing this?

The FCC in America voted to change how Internet Services are defined.  Net Neutrality no longer applies.  They can shape their services as they wish.  Why would ISPs want this?  Because in the US there are fewer Internet providers, so competition is lower.  Therefore they are looking for different ways to bundle their products.  Anti-competition rules are a lot more lack in the US.

What sort of examples could come into effect?

This is a complete paper exercise, but let’s say Time Warner, who own AOL and AT&T (two major providers), decide to launch a new video streaming service for Warner Brothers, who they also own.  They could make this service free of charge but block Netflix, Amazon Prime etc, and remove Warner Brothers films and TV programmes from their platforms. So if you were a big Barney Rubble fan the only way you could watch The Flintstones online is by being an AOL customer.

We’ve already had this with the spat of Google vs Amazon.  Amazon won’t stock some of Google’s products, so Google has blocked access to Youtube via some of Amazon’s gadgets.

What do we do currently about Net Neutrality in the UK?

God bless the EU.  As part of EU rules, ISPs cannot shape web traffic.  However, we are leaving the EU in 2019, so there’s nothing to stop the UK government following the American lead.  We actually have the opposite situation which is equally dangerous.  Some mobile providers do not count data usage for some services – WhatsApp, Netflix, Facebook.  There is much more competition in the UK broadband and mobile marketplace too.

How could this impact UK users and businesses?

At the ISP level, the impact is most likely if US ISPs see a big commercial improvement from their new service offering.  Influential organisations in the UK will put pressure on the government.  Many current ISPs are also content deliverers too (Sky, BT, Virgin).  Imagine a world where you can only watch Sky Go on Sky Broadband or Sky Mobile?  Disney is buying Fox, who are major shareholders of Sky TV – so you can see where all this could end up.

On a more general level, when a business creates a website or someone types in a website address, they expect it to be available online pretty much globally.  If that changes, we could potentially end up with a two-tier Internet.  Those who pay to have their web content delivered vs those that don’t.   ISPs could slow down sites or even block sites unless people pay to access sites in their sector.  And this is why there has been so much controversy about the repeal of this law.  We’ve grown used to the Internet being freely available, it’s one of its defining characteristics.

Hopefully, the impact on the UK will be minimal.  We are used in the country to always-on, all-you-can-eat style of services.  I pay road tax and fuel duty so I can go on any public road.  However more and more services are accessed via the Internet (streaming TV such as Netflix and BBC iPlayer, e-commerce, government services).  If we can’t guarantee that we can watch The Flintstones on iPlayer without some sort of premium, it won’t just be Barney that is upset.