Towards the end of 2017, there was a hot technology topic that kept showing up across the web and even making its way into the mainstream press here in Australia – something called “net neutrality”. It’s something almost nobody had heard much about in Australia until the big international sites started making waves about it. But what actually is net neutrality? Why is it such a big deal? And does it affect us here in Australia?
Since back in 2005, the Internet in the US has been subject to rules set by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) that aim to protect the Internet as a whole as a “common carrier” – in other words, it’s considered an essential service just like a home phone line, rather than as a “luxury”. Indeed, it’s what many Internet users have been saying for years – that reliable Internet access is as much an essential service as power, water or the phone.
In 2015 the FCC enshrined the Internet’s status as a common carrier into law – and this is the where the term “net neutrality” first got wide attention, which escalated when Donald Trump became president and vowed to repeal the freshly minted laws. Unsurprisingly, he got his way, and net neutrality in the US has effectively been defeated. People were extremely upset about this – and to understand why, we need to explain how net neutrality worked to keep the Internet open to all, and what its removal might mean.
What is Net Neutrality?
The basic idea behind net neutrality is very simple – that no Internet provider can give priority to traffic from particular sites, slow down traffic to others, or block sites completely. It’s a particular problem in the US because – unlike in Australia – many people don’t get a choice of which Internet provider they connect with. Cable internet is still a big thing in the US, and whichever cable provider you’ve got in your area is going to be your Internet provider as well.
So if that provider decides to block access to a site or service or allow it only on certain plans, or if they slow down popular sites like Netflix deliberately to encourage you to pay for a more expensive plan, that’s not something US customers can solve by simply switching providers. And there’s a history of providers doing exactly these sorts of things – and in some cases being given hefty fines for the practice.
Net neutrality laws made this sort of behaviour very much a no-no, so it’s not surprising to learn that the biggest lobby group calling for the repeal of net neutrality laws were the providers themselves.
Without laws to stop it, this can potentially have a direct impact on customers – do you want to be asked to pay extra to get HD video streaming or access to Skype? Any provider can now do that, though they claim they have no intention to – making it a bit of a mystery why they fought so hard to repeal the laws in the first place! But it’s not just the direct impact on customers that’s a possibility. Suggestions have been made that providers could, for example, charge huge companies like Netflix a fee to open up a “fast lane” to their subscribers. If Netflix doesn’t pay, every Netflix user with that ISP gets their Netflix streams slowed down to the point where HD isn’t even possible.
With so much media attention having been focused on net neutrality in the US, it’s not surprising that the big providers haven’t tried any of these things – yet.
Net Neutrality at Home
So could this happen in Australia? After all, we don’t have net neutrality laws at all, and never have, and yet it’s generally accepted here that Internet providers offer you equal access to the entire Internet, and any suggestion that one might be slowing down or blocking traffic to a site or service is usually met with outrage. And now more than ever, thanks to the NBN, customers have the freedom to vote with their feet and switch providers if they’re not happy. Providers know this all too well! Internet customers in Australia have more choice now than they ever have, the complete opposite of much of the US.
But we have seen some glimpses of how this sort of thing could happen in the future. For example, MyRepublic sells “Gamer Pro” versions of both its NBN plans, which promise a “network optimised for gaming, with custom routing.” In other words, pay $10 extra per month and you’ll get a faster or more responsive broadband connection.
We’ve also seen mobile providers like Optus throttling streaming services – but that’s usually gone hand in hand with plans that offer unmetered access to Netflix, Stan and the rest. In Optus’s case, streaming services are throttled down to 1.5 Mbps, providing only SD picture quality – but hey, it’s free, right? The new “unlimited” mobile plans from some providers also artifically slow you down once you pass a certain download threshold.
Isolated examples like this aren’t as egregious as you’d think – again, because nobody is stuck without a choice of Internet (or mobile) provider, and it would be a brave company indeed that started advertising plan “tiers” that enable things like HD Netflix streaming.
Many argue that some sort of net neutrality law is needed in Australia regardless – but for the time being, while the Internet doesn’t even enjoy a “common carrier” status here, that’s probably not going to happen. But services like Netflix are ramping up the amount of data providers have to deliver on a massive scale – which in turn costs providers more and lessens their profit margins. You can bet that some of them have at least thought about offering “fast lane” plans for streaming users. But to be the only provider to do so would be to invite customers to move elsewhere – and it’s that freedom of choice we have in Australia that pretty much guarantees we won’t see anything like that any time soon.