By Professor Ang Peng Hwa
Two years ago, my colleague and I wrote a commentary in the Straits Times (“US ruling on Net neutrality will have impact worldwide”) following the announcement by then United States Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler that the US will adopt rules for the Internet that will “ban paid prioritisation and the blocking and throttling of lawful content and services.
That was the Net neutrality ruling and the announcement, timed for the ICANN meeting in Singapore that February 2015, was clearly intended for an international audience.
The rules, however, were not permanent and the result is that with the change of government, the rules are being scrapped.
What is one to make of this change of heart and what are the implications for Singapore, or even the world as at least 15 of the top Internet companies in the world are from the US?
In the earlier commentary, my colleague and I had said that “the US government’s policy change on Net neutrality can be said to be a triumph for grassroots politics. It is a direct result of the bottom-up push of Americans to the Obama administration to prioritise Internet users, not Internet gatekeepers.”
The reversal is therefore unquestionably a defeat for grassroot politics. So that there is no doubt as to the thoroughness of the defeat: even an august group of more than 20 leading technologists pointing out misconception in the rules regarding how the Internet was run could not sway the FCC.
Fundamentally, the position taken by the Trump Administration appears to be grounded in ideology, in this case that of property rights: that as the ISPs own the cables, they should be allowed to do what they want to do with whatever flaws through their cables.
If allowed to be applied in practice, this would mean that, for example, SingTel could give priority to its HOOQ video stream over Netflix and its SingTel.com e-mails over e-mails using the addresses of its competitors.
The principle of Net neutrality that Internet providers should treat online content equally would not allow that. Singapore’s rules around the Net neutrality principle is that ISPs in Singapore can offer “fast lanes” to customers who are willing to pay but not at the expense of the average user. Also, ISPs cannot block legitimate content.
To be sure, the Net neutrality principle has no single definition. India, for example, allows the blocking of Skype calls within India to a phone number. Ironically, I was trying to arrange to meet a friend for a seminar on Net neutrality. When I told him that I could not call him over Skype, he seemed nonchalant.
He said: oh, that is because it is regulated under telecommunications. After that seminar, India’s regulators passed tough Net neutrality principles that banned Facebook from offering free access to its site. But one still cannot use Skype in India to call a number there.
Only a handful of countries—Brazil, Chile, Netherlands, Russia and Slovenia—have adopted Net neutrality as a legal requirement for the ISPs. Typically, they have done so by classifying the Internet is as a utility–which was also what the Obama Administration did.
At a deeper level, therefore, Net neutrality is not simply a matter of property rights. It is also a matter of how one sees the Internet. Classifying it as a utility Is as close as one can get to having it as a human right of access in practice. And this is why grassroots movements are so exercised about this issue.
Going back on Net neutrality also means that the ISP who controls the information flow on your Internet access can be allowed to manage the flow so that it gains at your expense.
Should I be worried?
If you are not living in the US, probably not. The US not only trailed many countries in this area but has now gone in reverse. As far as I know, it is the only country that has adopted Net neutrality and then abandoned it.
And in Singapore? Certainly not right now. No one has reported a case of discrimination against any service.
The two main reasons are that in Singapore we have sufficient bandwidth and strong competition. Imagine that you discover your ISP was slowing down your access to Netflix: you would just switch to a competitor.
In the short run, breaching Net neutrality may benefit the ISPs. The question is the long-term impact. Many talk about the potential impact on startups as abandoning Net neutrality would favour incumbents.
It is this short-term outlook, with a mindset that ignores the warnings of the community, that I find more worrying. I cannot think of a reason it should end well.
Professor Ang Peng Hwa is with the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological University.