The year is 2029. Net Neutrality no longer exists. What will the internet be like?
Here at TheBestVPN.com we’ve put together an interactive simulator of what the future might hold, it looks at social media, shopping, searching, and news websites. As you navigate you’ll uncover a dark digital dystopia of microtransactions, privacy invasions, and fake news.
You can find the simulator here, but please note that it’s purely illustrative and won’t actually take any of your money!
The internet is an important political battleground. Deciding whether to regulate or deregulate it encompasses many issues. These debates include free market economics versus government interference, and how to protect civil liberties online.
What Might Happen in America?
There is no central organisation controlling the internet. It is not owned by anyone. This means it’s difficult to hold the internet accountable or even to encourage self-policing. Instead of passing laws to regulate the internet, the US has chosen instead to repeal a law to deregulate.
Net neutrality is the principle that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should treat all data passing through the internet equally. In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) enshrined the principle of net neutrality in law. ISPs in the US should not discriminate, or charge differently based on the type of data or the web services being used.
In theory, this prevents ISPs throttling certain websites or prioritising websites that pay for special treatment. But in 2017, the FCC had the principle repealed. This was done to force more investment in broadband infrastructure by removing ‘red tape’. The end goal was to see faster internet speeds throughout the US.
According to free market theories, competition would prevent ISPs from abusing the lack of regulation. If one ISP started to act up, its customers would switch to a competitor. But many Americans only have one or two realistic broadband options. The barriers to entry to the marketplace are very high, as it costs many billions to build the necessary infrastructure. Customers wouldn’t be able to easily switch if ISPs began to abuse their power.
There is concern at the level of control this gives ISPs over consumers’ internet usage. The repeal of net neutrality could lead an ISP to charge content providers fees for faster connections to subscribers.
They could also start selling subscription bundles of websites – leading to two-tier plans. Cheaper, slower packages would have access to only a small selection of websites. And it’s possible that ISPs would ‘encourage’ customers to the more expensive packages by throttling and imposing strict data caps on the cheaper plans.
Unsurprisingly, the general public don’t like this prospect. The University of Maryland polled a representative sample of Americans in December 2017. To ensure an unbiased response, it prepared respondents ahead of time with briefings on both sides of the argument. It found that 83 percent of Americans did not approve of the FCC’s proposal to repeal net neutrality.
This large public backlash makes it unlikely that ISPs will try anything insidious right now. The current climate makes such a move political and commercial suicide. As the furore dies down, people will start to believe ISPs will play fair without anyone forcing them to. That’s when it becomes more likely that some will start to misbehave.
ISPs have history of violating internet rights. Comcast throttled peer-to-peer file sharing, more commonly known as torrenting, between 2008 and 2011. AT&T was also caught in 2012 limiting Apple’s FaceTime to users with shared data plans, which are generally more expensive.
Finally, Verizon throttled a Californian fire department’s data speed in 2018. The Santa Clara Fire Department had gone over its data allowance while responding to the latest in a series of wildfires. It had to pay double to lift the restrictions. While not directly a net neutrality problem, this is still an example of ISPs holding internet users to ransom.
Although this is currently an internal US debate, there could be major repercussions for the rest of the world. Firstly, America still sets an example that a lot of countries look to follow, especially in the developing world. And secondly, online services may become pricier outside the US if they are more expensive to provide in the US.
What Might Happen in Europe?
The EU has opted to make laws for tighter regulation. On 15th April 2019, the European Council voted to adopt into EU law the European Union Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market.
This directive requires websites to take more responsibility for copyrighted material being shared illegally on their platforms. As its full name is unwieldy to say the least, it has become known by its most controversial section: Article 13.
Article 13 states that websites that host user-generated content “shall cooperate in good faith in order to ensue that unauthorised protected works or other subject matter are not available on their services.” This means the websites themselves are now responsible for copyright violations. They must take down content if it infringes on copyright.
Despite this new law, there is currently no agreement on how websites are supposed to spot this content in order to remove it. The current situation seems to be that most website owners will have to use automated filters to scan all uploaded content for potential violations, a system that is far from perfect.
This article has also been dubbed the “meme ban”. No one is entirely sure whether memes based on copyrighted images will be allowed under the new law. Memes should be protected as parodies, but there is debate that filters won’t be sophisticated enough to distinguish what constitutes parody and so they’ll block memes anyway.
Article 13 may have passed into EU law, but it is now down to the individual member states to enact the law, allowing different countries to interpret the law in different ways.
If the worst comes to the worst, the internet as we know could be very different.