It's a weird to watch the country with an almost fetish-like focus on freedom constantly attempt to roll that freedom back.
The United States is currently in a tizzy, again, over what should be a simple and quick discussion—net neutrality. On December 14, the FCC will vote on whether it wants to roll back the net neutrality regulations that were hard won by information activists in 2015. If reeled back there is a possibility that internet service providers could put in place a two-tier internet, one in which they control which sites get high-speed access and which won’t.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai says that the internet has worked well with fewer regulations in the past and he is putting the power back in the hands of the ISPs instead of bureaucrats (because telecommunication conglomerates have never abused their power in the past, right?). Pai, and the rest of the folks trying to roll these regulations back, have been met with intense and vocal opposition to their decision.
"The major fear is that they could do things like creating a two-tier internet that only sites that are willing to pay the additional fees will be carried on the fast lanes and everyone else is consigned to the slow lane,” Michael Geist, one of Canada’s leading authorities on internet law, told VICE.
The thing is, America ruining their net neutrality regulations won’t just impact them—it’ll impact the rest of the world as well.
Geist, a professor and founder of the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, said that currently Canada has “robust” net neutrality regulations, but due to its proximity to the United States it can’t help but be the first to be impacted. Simply put, if this change transpires, it will impact Canadians, and other people around the world, on two different levels—business and consumer.
The most profound impact will be on businesses attempting to break into the large American market. If a two-tier internet is put in place it could allow internet service providers [ISP] to pick and choose which sites and applications get preferential treatment, something that could seriously hamper innovation and the growth of new businesses.
"The example I've given a few people features one of Canada's e-commerce stars, Shopify, and one can imagine a scenario where a large US provider strikes a deal with one e-commerce provider other than Shopify and ensure that all its online stores and services go on the fast lane,” said Geist. “That becomes an attractive thing for sites that want to set up shops online."
Another worry would be something called zero-rating—when ISPs allow preferential sites to not impact a data plan—which is a form of price discrimination. Say an ISP has a streaming service, well, they could allow access to that service with no impact to a user's data plan whereas a competing service would impact their bill.
The impact on the consumer will be much more subtle than the glaring impact on business. Let’s be honest here, Silicon Valley like it or hate it, is the driving force for the majority of innovations in the digital world and it will be affected as well. Essentially, over time, with a two-tier internet, innovation will be slowed because small businesses can’t break into a market and with the even further consolidation of the oligopolies that already exist the choices will become more and more narrow.
Speaking of oligopolies, one horrifying analogy Geist made is to that of a cable company where you are forced by the demons who work there to pick from packages—where what you receive is not at the user's discretion but the companies.
“We could start seeing the world in which some of the internet packages look a lot more like cable, especially for some of the wireless services, where you have to pick your sites and social media,” he said.
Recently, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that he was “very concerned” with the developments regarding net neutrality in the United States. Navdeep Bains, the Canadian Minister for innovation, science and economic development expressed to VICE that net neutrality is an important issue for him.
"This is a very important issue, not only for me but, you know, it's an issue of our time, just like freedom of the press and freedom of expression,” Bains told VICE. “I think it's an important to raise awareness around net neutrality and inform the public what is at stake.
"This is about making sure that people have access to information without prejudice, I think it's really important the public understands that."
Another underlying issue at play here is America’s position as a geopolitical leader. Geist says in other parts of the world may look to America’s decision as an excuse by other regimes to pull or weaken their own regulations—something Canadians might need to worry about in the future.
The Canadian government works to promote a free and open internet across the world, a stream of advocacy that Minister Bains says is "essential" to continue.
"It's really about levelling the playing field," said Bains. "While other parts of the world are focused on building walls, we're focused on opening doors."
Follow Mack Lamoureux on Twitter