In less than a year, the Donald Trump presidency in the U.S. has administered quite a few body blows to many a signature achievement of his predecessor Barack Obama — for instance, the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate pact. Another addition to this list must be the decision by the government agency, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), to remove regulations that have disallowed Internet service providers (ISPs) in the U.S. from throttling, blocking or speeding up Internet content for firms that pay for faster access for customers. The FCC’s decision was made possible by a 3-2 vote on party lines, with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Trump appointee and a Republican, clinching it.
This is a major blow to “net neutrality” in the U.S. Net neutrality is at the core of an open Internet that does not allow for content discrimination by ISPs. This principle has allowed the burgeoning of the Internet, from one as a means of communication and a destination for information to becoming a parallel, virtual universe that caters to social interactions, business, knowledge dissemination, and entertainment among other things. The proviso for an open Internet where any website can be accessed at the same speeds that are paid for by the consumer, without discrimination by the ISP, allows for equal access to all web locations.
The overturned regulations were part of an order, in 2015, by the FCC during the Obama-led administration that provided for “light-touch” regulations for broadband services and to preserve net-neutrality. Internet pioneers such as Vint Cerf who co-invented the TCP/IP network protocol, and World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee have also emphasised the centrality of the principle of net neutrality, asserting that its inviolability has been built into the structure of the Internet itself — in its layers and protocols that allow for seamless access to any networked device in the world irrespective of the nature of the physical infrastructure that has built the network.
The 2015 order had deemed that broadband content will be regulated as a service delivery much like phone services are. Mr. Pai has claimed that these regulations have dis-incentivised ISPs from improving or increasing investment in Internet infrastructure. He has argued that the Internet thrived before the net neutrality order and there is no reason for alarm. Both arguments are flawed. Broadband service providers in the U.S. have reportedly spent more on infrastructure after the order was passed in 2015, a fact that some telecommunication behemoths such as AT&T admitted to investors as well. Also, before the 2015 order, there were increasing instances of ISPs introducing faster lanes for various kinds of content, which brought the net neutrality debate to public attention in the U.S.
Meanwhile, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India has, thankfully, recommended rules in favour of net neutrality in India . Activists here have their work cut out to see that there is no emulation of the U.S. government’s decision.