The principle of net neutrality, which has been a subject of discord between opponents and supporters for years, could disappear Thursday by a vote of the US regulatory authorities.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) must rule on the repeal of a rule dating from the presidency of Barack Obama that requires Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to treat all online services in the same way, ensuring what is called “net neutrality”.
At first glance very technical, this decision could have concrete consequences for Internet users, say the defenders of the principle of neutrality.
Because the decision of the FCC theoretically allow ISPs to modulate the speed of internet flow as they please, depending on the content that passes in their “pipes”, advocates of neutrality fear that these ISPs will create a “two-speed internet” by charging more for faster throughput, or by blocking certain competing services, such as video-on-demand, internet telephony, or search engines.
The big American ISPs are themselves creators of content: ComCast owns for example NBCUniversal (TV channels and studios). AT&T is seeking to buy Time Warner (which owns studios but also channels like CNN or HBO).
If ISPs impose additional fees on companies that provide bandwidth-intensive content — such as Netflix, Amazon, or Hulu — these companies might therefore decide to pass on the increased costs to their subscribers.
But for opponents of net neutrality, the current rules equate operators to public services and prevent investment in new services like video conferencing, tele-medicine and connected vehicles that need broadband.
A heated debate has opposed supporters and detractors of this principle for more than a decade, both claiming to defend an “open and free” Internet, a debate repeatedly brought to courts in the past and still causing today major demonstrations.
The new FCC boss, Ajit Pai, appointed by President Donald Trump, recently decided to put the subject back on the table and promised to end the current rules to “restore the freedom of the internet.”
Despite protests from technology groups and digital rights advocates, Pai argues for a return to a “light regulatory approach” to the situation that has allowed the internet to flourish in the early 2000s.
For their part, the ISPs promise to manage their network in an open and transparent manner while the FCC ensures that in case of complaints, the Federal Competition Commission (FTC), which specializes in the protection of consumers and anti-monopoly rules, will take necessary measures.
Although very American, the debate on “net neutrality” indirectly concerns many other countries that base their Internet legislation on the American model. The European Union has passed directives but each member state has its own regulation.
The American situation is unique because it is private operators who create and invest in their own networks, while elsewhere infrastructure belonging to a current or former monopoly is shared.