Net Neutrality Beyond the U.S.

Photo By: FCC

by Reid Porter and Soshana Hashmie

If you haven’t heard yet, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under Chairman Ajit Pai’s leadership is planning a vote on Thursday, December 14th to potentially roll back so-called net neutrality regulations. Depending on whom you ask, the end of a neutral net either means the death of the internet as we know it, a potential boon for infrastructure investment that will benefit customers, or a red herring that distracts us from larger threats to a free and open internet.  

There are legitimate arguments to be made about what type and how much regulation is best for something as critical to our economy and our industry as the internet. Advocates for net neutrality maintain that allowing internet service providers (ISPs) to preference, throttle, or block content traveling through their networks amounts to pay-to-play racketeering. Proponents of repeal, on the other hand, assert that enforcing a neutral net via broad regulation can be costly in the sense that it will reduce incentives for ISPs to invest in infrastructure or innovation. Some point out that other issues like zero-rating, where an ISPs can provide their partners’ content or services for free, are more damaging to competition than overblown concerns about bald-face blocking or throttling. And then, of course, there’s a large and vocal segment of people who distrust large ISPs and would prefer to keep them on as short a leash as possible.

As with most politically charged issues, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle, though we at InterAction don’t claim to have expert knowledge or a crystal ball. Many pixels have been darkened on the implications of this vote for U.S. consumers, so instead we’d like to open up a discourse on what the end of net neutrality would mean for development actors and our partners overseas.

InterAction has spent the better part of the last two months soliciting and listening to its member NGO’s concerns, and found--perhaps unsurprisingly--that it’s a backburner issue for many. While net neutrality may not initially be the most salient of priorities for humanitarian and development organizations, its effects could have far reaching implications.

Democracy, rights, and governance organizations are primarily concerned about the precedent that would be established if the U.S. did roll back net neutrality. Most developing countries look to the United States for leadership on issues pertaining to trade, political infrastructure, business models, and consumer protection. Developing nations especially look for external examples and best practices when building their internet infrastructure. If the FCC proceeds to rewrite the rules for ISPs, many are concerned that it could provide cover for some governments to preference content that is friendly to the state and throttle or even block content that, for instance, promotes human rights or criticizes government policy. The U.S. could be setting a potentially dangerous precedent for developing nations at the same time that we endeavor to promote open, free, and democratic discourse online.

There is a valid, though murkier, case to be made for how net neutrality promotes competition and innovation by startups and entrepreneurs. If internet regulations discourage or disadvantage these companies from gaining customers, many potentially useful services that we as development and humanitarian actors use may struggle to remain profitable, or indeed, never come into existence. (Keep in mind, in the early days of Skype, our favorite international communication platform was blocked on iPhones by AT&T). This is especially concerning as large companies increasingly see market potential in the developing world, either via the app economy, data collection tools, or e-commerce and peer-to-peer payment systems.

And finally, it may very well be the case that FCC regulatory changes will only affect consumers here in the U.S. and have few consequences beyond our borders.

...but what do you think? We would encourage you to contact the FCC or your congressional representatives with your thoughts, but also share them with us! You can get in touch with Soshana Hashmie (shashmie@interaction.org) or tag @InterActionOrg on Twitter with the hashtag #NetNeutrality.

 

Early in 2018, we’re planning to co-host a Technology Salon to bring together a diverse group to think through the implications of the end of net neutrality on our organizations, our partners, and our beneficiaries abroad. Stay tuned for more details to come!