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Sunday, December 17, 2017

Why net neutrality underpins our freedoms

The internet is the world's purest democracy. On the web we are all equal and our opinions equally valid. Unfortunately, that egalitarianism also spawns behaviour which reflects the worst aspects of humanity, including stalking, trolling and vile abuse. We take the good with the bad (law-breaking excepted) because to do otherwise would compromise our own freedoms.

Despite being a commercial concern in its own right, the internet remains a community to which we can all have access in one way or another. It is a community in which a small blog or a single tweet can have a huge impact, in which one ordinary person's opinion is as valid as that of a Prime Minister and where big corporations compete on a level playing field with one person operations.

That happens because the companies who enable us to access the web are not allowed to discriminate in favour of one user over another. You cannot buy preferential treatment by an ISP because to do so would break the terms under which they are allowed to provide that service. However, if Donald Trump gets his own way all of that is going to change.

As Jonathan Freedland explains in the Guardian, Thursday’s decision by a Trump appointee to scrap the rules governing access to the internet known as “net neutrality” could affect the online realm inhabited by all of us:

Put simply, until now your internet service provider has been obliged to treat all websites equally, so that a neighbourhood blog is just as accessible as a major corporate site. Your broadband provider has had to be neutral between blokeinhispottingshed.com and Amazon, and not operate a fast lane for one and a slow lane for the other.

Thanks to Trump and his man at the Federal Communications Commission, that obligation is binned. Now those ISPs can offer premium access to some and deny it to others. The big players will be able to pay the extra cash to ensure they stay in the fast lane, but the cost will shut out startups. The next challenger to Netflix or Facebook may be strangled at birth by prohibitive fast-lane tolls.

That’s a loss for those would-be innovators and for us, who will never see what they might have produced. Power online will be ever more concentrated in the hands of a few giants. But there’s a more direct political dimension. Take the blog maintained by the residents of Grenfell Tower, which warned of disaster before it struck. To ensure their warnings were heard, their US equivalents would now have to find a home on one of the mega-platforms, posting their material on, say, Facebook.

But how confident could they be that Facebook, if confronted by an irate local council, would continue to host and shield those residents, or people like them? A defining feature of the internet was that it was open and a broadly level playing field. Thanks to Trump, it will now be more equal for some – including the rich corporations – than for others.

Trump may not be able to keep his big promises on Obamacare and the Mexican wall but in small ways like this he is shifting the balance of power for everybody. And for those who believe that this is just America and it won't affect us, then think on.

Most of our internet companies and domains have footholds in America. For now the European Community is maintaining net neutrality, but how long will they be able to hold out against the economic might of the USA. And of course we are leaving the EU. Our Brexiteers are closely aligned to Trump. The ending of net neutrality in the UK may only be a few years away.

Money has always bought influence, now it will be able to suppress inconvenient truths as well. Our world has just become a less free place.
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