Since the Internet was invented, there have been measures for ensuring that there are certain governing principles to ensure nondiscrimination requirements. The quest to impose restrictions on network operators that compose and offer Internet access, and make sure there is an equal access, as well as non-discriminatory treatment, is called net neutrality. In light of the massive developments in the domain of net neutrality, this paper seeks to provide a comprehensive definition of net neutrality, ascertain the negative impacts associated with its absence, and case studies from a number of countries.
Definitions of Net Neutrality
There is no universal definition of the concept of “net neutrality.” Despite this, many agree that any of these definitions need to incorporate the general principle that network owners who compose and ensure access need to have control over the way consumers legally utilize the network. They should not have the capacity to discriminate against providers of content, particularly on access to the network. The second definition is that net neutrality is a principle suggesting that all points on a network have the capacity to connect to other points on the network, without any form of discrimination based on destination, origin, or data type (Madhvapaty, & Goyal, 2014). In simpler terms, this means that the net neutrality principles call for governments and Internet service providers (ISPs) to treat Internet traffic equally. It implies that ISPs should not slow down or block traffic on local broadband networks. The premise of this principle is to make sure consumers have access to the content they desire, while at the same time ensuring that organizations utilizing these broadband networks can communicate with their clients without interference by companies controlling connections (Madhvapaty, & Goyal, 2014).
Furthermore, net neutrality is also defined as a policy proposal that can regulate the way network providers handle and price network usage (Hahn, & Wallsten, 2006). Sidak (2006) defines net neutrality as being made up of various propositions instead of a single concept. Net neutrality proponents contend that price discrimination should be prohibited in providing access to services. Proponents also oppose any form of denying access to particular Internet apps or websites by the final users. Finally, proponents believe that access providers should be forbidden from integrating backwards into producing applications or content (Cave & Crocioni, 2007).
From these definitions and building blocks of net neutrality, it can be defined as the principle that ISPs have to offer access to all the content, sites, and apps at the same speed and conditions without any attempt to block or preference any content. Whether one connects to a website, blog, or service, the ISP should treat them equally. Therefore, ISPs need to treat all the content that flows through their cell towers and cables in an equal way. It also implies that they should not have the ability to block or discriminate against any material. Simply put, these organizations should not block one from accessing a service such as Skype or slow down Shahid to encourage consumers to purchase other video-streaming services.
Significance of Net Neutrality and Negative Impacts associated with its Absence
Freedom of Expression
Network neutrality protects free speech by forbidding ISPs from blocking content on the Internet (ACLU, 2017). In the absence of this, ISPs could theoretically block access to content that they do not want consumers to see. Rosenworcel, FCC Commissioner, argued in 2017 that removing net neutrality can grant ISPs immense new power and lead to censoring online content (Rosenworcel, 2017). A 2014 Washington Circuit court ruling in the case of Verizon vs. FCC affirmed that ISPs’ power to censor content is not just theoretical, but practicable. This ruling was based on the premise that prior to net neutrality, content censorship had actually happened. The Electronic Freedom Foundation averred that the exercise of constitutional rights such as the freedoms of press, assembly, and speech has increasingly become reliant on access to broadband Internet (Kadet, & Koontz, 2019). This reliance makes net neutrality regulations crucial for a free society.
Spurs Innovation and Competition
Net neutrality spurs competition and innovation and protects consumers by deterring ISPs from slowing, charging high fees, or speeding up online content. Notably, an open Internet makes sure that larger firms do not have an undue advantage over small startups. The Internet provides a level playing field whereby all things are delivered in the shortest time possible to end-users. Players can compete equally when there is a level playing field. In the absence of net neutrality protections, startups would grapple with discrimination from content that is provided with a speed advantage or benefit through paid prioritization, hence stifling competition as well as consumer choice (Leese, 2012). While implementing the net neutrality regulations in 2015, the FCC heeded a warning that broadband providers have the tools needed for degrading or disfavoring content they hate. Also, in the absence of net neutrality, broadband providers will be able to charge services and websites to reach subscribers of an ISP. It threatens the low cost associated with starting an enterprise, and it up-ends the Internet’s economics (Harris, 2018). More than 1,000 startup firms, investors, and innovators petitioned the FCC which stated that the success of the startup ecosystem relies on an open Internet.
Permitting ISPs to slow or speed some websites can ultimately trickle down to content consumers through higher internet costs. For instance, an individual who accesses internet service from a certain ISP may be charged more fees in order to stream Netflix (which is a firm that the ISP does not own), while will not be charged more to stream a service owned by the ISP. Thus, in the absence of net neutrality, it may mean that ISPs can cabelize the Internet, implying that rather than a flat price being paid to access any service or app free of charge, organizations could commence bundling services into video, social or others and compel consumers to pay for it (Economides, 2008).
Net neutrality is crucial for guaranteeing that everything found on the Internet can be accessed by everyone. Making high-quality content a luxury that can only be afforded and enjoyed by the wealthy can aggravate social exclusion. Providers are prevented from charging end-users more fees in order to access crucial services, such as email or online banking or entertainment platforms, including gaming networks (Gilroy et al., 2014). Thus, net neutrality gets rid of the likelihood of internet fast lanes whereby ISPs can charge creators of content for adequate bandwidth to deliver services appropriately.
Case Studies from Various Countries
2021 was the last year the US marked without critical federal net neutrality protections. On the other hand, 2022 is the year the US wants to undo the 2017 repeal and ensure the FCC goes back to its mandate of protecting consumers and achieving net-neutral and universal internet access. At its core, it is worth noting that net neutrality protections are premised on the fact that people do not yearn for their broadband providers to influence their online experiences (a need that increased during the pandemic). What this means is that people want to have unfettered access to the Internet (a key advantage of net neutrality). Internet service is currently considered to be as crucial as electricity and water in everyday life by Americans. Major broadband providers including Verizon and Comcast, however, still resist the fact that their role as crucial service providers should not imply regulations protecting consumers should be applicable to them. An example of these developments is the California law which demonstrates the role of state power in the protection of consumers. California’s net neutrality law forces carriers to abandon issues that contradict net neutrality, including the attempt of AT&T to self-preference its online streaming service (Falcon, 2021). The law shows the importance of net neutrality in getting rid of expensive broadband access and spurring competition among products and services. Thus, it implies that the law plays a critical role in spurring innovation and competition. In the absence of these rules, it is worth noting that there would be no freedom of expression, less innovation, an unfair playing field, and costly Internet access.
The UK embraced the Open Internet Access Regulation 2015 of the EU in 2016. The essence of this rule is to protect consumers while ensuring a level playing field for innovators and service providers. The UK tasks Ofcom with the responsibility of enforcing these principles. However, the status quo may soon change with Ofcom seeking to review the way the UK’s net neutrality framework functions, and whether there is any need for change as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. United Kingdom ISPs have often criticized the manner in which net neutrality constrains their ability to maximize their traffic (Howell, 2021). However, this demonstrates that net neutrality is crucial for unfettered access and spurring competition. Maintaining net neutrality is crucial as people shift to a post-pandemic world as it will be even more critical than five years ago. It is premised on the fact that people need network access and the capacity to access what they require without interference from various service providers. Many data users, including YouTube or Netflix, have commercial strength to demand more bandwidth since they can afford it. However, there is a technological divide as digital exclusion continues to impede access to crucial online services. In Scotland and Wales, for instance, one million adults struggle to afford adequate internet access. With ISPs and businesses pushing to make sure that their services and content are prioritized, they impose immense pressure on the net neutrality principle in the UK.
With findings of Ofcom not expected until Spring of 2022, whether its net neutrality environment will change to such a level that ISPs embrace the internet gatekeeping role remains to be seen. What is evident currently is that net neutrality provides immense benefits for consumers.
ISPs have played a pertinent role in the internet regulation regime of China. Internet Service Providers are governed to serve the regulatory goals of the government. It is also worth noting that Chinese ISPs have been relied on instead of neutral government intermediaries. To demonstrate a future or world without net neutrality, Beijing is an ideal example. Internet in China is provided through a number of telecom giants affiliated with the Communist Party, a digital dystopia, filtered by the large censorship apparatus called China’s Great Firewall. Some of the sites often load slowly or do not load at all, while others appear instantly. The other characteristic of this network is that content can vanish without explanation or warning with the culprit being unknown (Hu, 2011). China’s case is an example of the absence of net neutrality which leads to the loss of freedom of expression, unfair competition, and interference with access to the Internet. Beijing is not shy about deploying its economic and political heft to clamp down on dissent beyond the country’s borders, using tactics that combine commerce and politics (Frisch, 2017). The process commences at home with foreign media companies that seek access to the enormous markets of China facing intense pressure from the ruling party’s gatekeepers to commit themselves to certain control and privacy. Many netizens have been left stranded and frustrated by the government’s efforts to limit unfettered access to the Internet, thus demonstrating the ills associated with the absence/lack of net neutrality.
In spite of South African being among the leading digital economies in Africa, it lacks a specific regulatory framework for governing net neutrality. The quest for net neutrality in South Africa is premised on the principle that the Internet should remain neutral and offer all persons or businesses an equal opportunity to take advantage of its disruptive potential. South Africa also recognizes that this principle is crucial to the tenet of online democracy and expression (Cupido, 2021). A white paper that has already been drafted outlines the commitment of the South African government to promote net neutrality and argues that a sector regulator will recommend to the minister the best way of achieving net neutrality. The stance held by the South African government on net neutrality also remains clear: promoting the Internet as a free expression platform, with unfettered access to innovation and information, and deter blocking or other forms of unfair treatment on content access.
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