Repealing net neutrality is a major step backwards for musicians internet users [Editorial]

While controversy brews around net neutrality and what a potential repeal of the 2015 Open Internet Order could mean, it becomes easy to lose sight of the fundamental scenario at hand that led to the FCC to seriously consider the implementation of such a radical shift in the way Americans may experience the internet for the foreseeable future.

What exactly is net neutrality? Save The Internet states that “Net Neutrality is the basic principle that prohibits internet service providers like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon from speeding up, slowing down or blocking any content, applications or websites you want to use.” This means that ISPs do not have the power to partition, censor, throttle or even modify content on the internet — ensuring a ‘neutral’ playground for all end users.

This is certainly an immensely crucial standard that is up for debate.The complete freedom of the general public to surf the internet as they please is essential for the exchange of all sorts of information and data between individuals for social, academic, scientific, recreational, and even political purposes.

So why would Ajit Pai, Chairman of the FCC, want to implement an apparently ludicrous new act (that is ironically named ‘Restoring Internet Freedom’) that forces users to browse the internet as their ISP sees fit? The answer is simple— telecom corporations.

The FCC believes that the order passed in 2015 protecting net neutrality (titled Tier 2) is detrimental to smaller ISPs in the US, and is analogous to “the proverbial sledgehammer being wielded against the flea.” The FCC went on to cite an “unusual” 5.6%,or $3.6 billion, decline in “domestic broadband capital expenditure” between 2014-16 to further cement their perceived “evidence” that net neutrality is alienating telecom companies. Hence Pai’s camp and the current FCC deem new neutrality as  detrimental to the progress of the nation.

480px-USTelecom1996-2015.svg

By DavidMCEddy – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

While Mr Pai’s statement is not complete, turgid rubbish per se, it does have certain glaring loopholes that are suspicious, to say the least. A report by The New York Times suggested that the FCC ‘cherry picked’ financial data to support their bid, and argued that the recent multi-billion dollar acquisitions by the corporations in question are entirely contrary to the dreary landscape that Mr Pai has attempted to make his audience envision.

A closer look at the broadband provider investment levels over the past two decades or so shows that the apparent drop attributed to the Tier 2 act post-2015 is by no means the most shocking one in recent memory. The steepest decline was in 2002 when the FCC’s classification of ‘cable modem service as an information service’ resulted in an alarming drop in investment levels of about  $70 billion. In fact, reports suggest that telecom corporations made a profit of about 5.3% in 2015-16 as compared to 2013-14, which is directly contradictory to the numbers provided by the FCC in support of their argument.

Unsurprisingly, this wouldn’t be the first time the current government has done something mind-bogglingly “against the grain” in the name of “economic progress.” A quick look back at the Paris climate agreement fiasco in June 2017 (when the US pulled out of the accord citing financial reasons) demonstrates the lengths that the administration will go to to uphold what they view is the ultimate “protection of the US economy.”

One of the more off-putting aspects of the entire scenario is that the FCC has been continually incapable of providing details of the regulatory framework that will be enforced once the Tier 2 act is replaced by the ‘Restoring Internet Freedom’ act. The FCC has teamed up with the FTC to “work together to take targeted action against bad actors,” in “appropriate scenarios.” However, the supposed action that will be taken against these “bad actors” is obscure and vague, even earning criticism from within the FCC itself. In fact, quite a few experts believe that passing the act will allow corporations to fettle with internet rules as they please, as long as they abide by the law.

This leads us to the most pertinent question: what exactly could the effects of passing ‘Restoring Internet Freedom’ act be? A quick look at Portugal could potentially provide an answer. As can be seen from the infographic below, leading Portuguese service provider MEO uses a differential pricing method for different types of broadband mobile app add-ons, a worrying trend that could potentially be amplified in the United States to become the new standard for internet as a whole — not just for mobile phones. It might also bring about a variety of deals in which ISPs tie-up with internet-based services (Spotify, for example), providing the users with the said service at a nominal price, while raising the price, throttling bandwidth or even blocking to the services’ competitors.

meo pricing portugal

Extrapolate these deals to web-based technological services, and all of a sudden a big technological firm can exercise its financial power to significantly reduce or even terminate the reach of growing competitor firms, which have historically heavily relied on the internet to generate traffic and compete with the big boys. This is of particular importance, as the USA ranks 49th in the world when it comes to starting a business and sixth in the world in ease of doing business, (per The World Bank) numbers that could drop to abysmal levels if such a scenario comes to pass.

Musicians too could face testing times if this act is implemented. Without net neutrality, there is a high possibility that musicians like Chance the Rapper would never have been discovered. Rolling Stone suggests that repealing net neutrality might not only hinder the reach of budding musicians due to the increased prices to access streaming services like Spotify and SoundCloud, but could also potentially decrease an artists’ royalties and profit margins due to the higher overhead internet and advertising costs. This will directly affect an artist’s livelihood and could even potentially wipe out their careers at an infantile stage.

Perhaps the most sinister implication of repealing net-neutrality would be politically-fueled information censorship. Imagine a scenario where a political party uses their influence to make an underhand deal with ISPs to lower the price of accessing new websites that are affiliated to that party while increasing the amount paid or even censoring to access a site that is directly affiliated to the party’s opposition. All of a sudden, a political party can push its agenda forward and influence a higher number of readers with much lower resistance than before, at the expense of the ordinary citizen.

All in all, Mr Pai’s claim that repealing net neutrality will help facilitate progress feels ultimately misinformed. While the new act MAY promote the growth of telecom companies, it will come at the cost of internet services, start-ups, budding entrepreneurs and perhaps most importantly, the average American.

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