Save the net?
US regulations protecting net neutrality have been controversially repealed, and while the impact won’t be immediately felt in New Zealand, tech experts fear we could still feel longer term effects.
Federal regulators in the US today voted to reverse Obama-era rules for broadband companies like AT&T and Verizon that prohibit them from slowing certain websites or charging premiums for specific services or streaming.
The decision - a 3-2 vote by members of the Federal Communications Commission - is seen by many tech companies, consumer groups and politicians as a major setback in preventing internet providers from having too much power.
The primary fear is that this new freedom will lead to internet service providers (ISPs) discriminating against rival websites and apps.
Net neutrality means that every internet user has identical access to all websites and services.
The Washington Post explains: “For example, under the net neutrality rules Verizon was not allowed to favor Yahoo and AOL, which it owns, by blocking Google. In addition, Verizon was not be allowed to charge Google extra fees in order to connect to Verizon customers.”
Whether or not something like this might happen remains to be seen, and InternetNZ deputy chief executive, Andrew Cushen, said the primary impact will only be felt in the US.
However, he said there will be a secondary impact in New Zealand as “so much of what the modern internet is, is designed in the US. Their rules have a disproportionate influence on the services we have in New Zealand.”
“Those decisions and ideas will start to bleed here.”
What he means is if today’s deregulations lead to net neutrality being completely thrown out the window in the US, ISPs in New Zealand could follow suit.
Science Media Centre director and tech commentator, Peter Griffin, agreed.
“This hasn't really emerged as a major issue here, probably because of the major structural changes the industry has undergone in the last decade and the role of Chorus as the dedicated wholesaler of network access to everyone,” he said.
“But companies here, emboldened by what has gone on in the US, are likely to push the envelope as the need to differentiate themselves from their rivals intensifies.”
In 2015, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment said net neutrality wasn't a cause for concern.
The new Minister of Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media, Clare Curran, said net neutrality has never been an issue in New Zealand in the past but it is something to keep an eye on.
“If there is a feeling that there needs to be part of that conversation, but just as recently as two years ago, the previous Government asked the questions around this and it wasn’t raised as an issue.”
A review of the Telecommunications Act is underway. Among the ideas being floated is enforcing information disclosure and price-quality regulation for Chorus. Consultation for the review ends March 3.
In May, the law firm Russell McVeagh published an opinion column saying “New Zealand is likely to maintain its approach of not regulating for net neutrality.”
“The prevailing view seems to be that the current framework is sufficient to protect consumers, and now that the FCC is set to remove net neutrality regulation, it is more difficult to argue that New Zealand is out of step with international developments on this issue."
Green Party ICT spokesperson Gareth Hughes disagreed, saying net neutrality needs to be enshrined in New Zealand law.
He too said the precedent of US deregulation would have international influence: “The internet is a global network.”
“We’ve seen media companies become ISPs, telecommunication companies become streaming service providers and some are now offering special data packs for certain websites,” he said.
“This is a live issue and one we need to clarify in our law.”
Both Spark and Vodafone are currently offering add-on packages that give people more gigabytes for access to certain websites and apps such as Facebook and Twitter. They’re called “Social Pass” (Vodafone) and “Socialiser” (Spark).
Andrew Cushen said packages like these “look like something that is a less neutral internet”.
“Customers should have the ability to choose. If your internet service provider wants to take away your choice to enjoy the entire internet or pay even more to get to some bits of the internet, then switch to someone else,” he said.
Interviews by Max Towle and RNZ journalist Emma Hatton.