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Net Neutrality

Most people around the world have come across the famous photo of a man standing in front of a tank during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 in China. If you haven't, a simple Google search will get you up to speed. However, to this day, when you execute an online search of the event in China, you will struggle to find any information due to censorship from the Chinese government who ultimately control all network traffic in and out of the country. You can imagine the frustration of people in China who want to educate themselves on the events that happened that day and are unable to. It goes against the notion of a free and open internet, or as it more recently been referred to, net neutrality.

So, what is net neutrality? Consider this scenario…you’ve decided to splash out on a nice dinner for you and your friend. There’s only one other table in the restaurant and they’re already eating. Several minutes after you’ve ordered your meals, a group of people walk in to the restaurant and the waiter takes their order. Fast forward thirty minutes later and not only are you still waiting for your food, but the larger table of people who ordered long after you, have just received their meals. You signal the waiter and ask him “has there been a mistake? We ordered our food before that table was even in the restaurant…” perhaps the order has been lost, these things do happen sometimes. To your disbelief, the waiter responds “Sorry Sir, but those people ordered from the Premium Menu and as such, we’ve pushed their order ahead of yours.” 

You wouldn’t accept this level of service in a restaurant and you certainly wouldn’t expect this level of service from your Internet Service Provider (ISP) when you try accessing content on the internet. This is why in 2015 over four million Americans wrote to then president Barack Obama, protesting against American ISP’s who were either blocking or prioritising internet access based on payment. This eventuated in the Obama administration pushing for net neutrality and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted in favour of stopping ISP’s from content discrimination based on payment. However, as of June 11 2018, net neutrality rules in the United States (US) have ceased to exist due to a repeal from the FCC after claims the Obama administration put it under pressure to pass the ruling. Nonetheless, the majority of US states are planning to propose their own bills in favour of net neutrality.  

But what does this mean for us Kiwis in this far corner of the world? For starters, New Zealand doesn’t actually have any laws in place regarding net neutrality (bar banning access to illegal material). In fact, many aspects of net neutrality are already being withheld by ISP’s such as Spark and Vodafone, who offer “extra” services such as the “Socialiser” and “Social Pass” add-ons to your plan. These enable users to access apps such as Facebook or Instagram as much as they want for a small extra fee on top of their plan. What looks like an extra product offered to consumers is in fact a limitation in disguise put in place in order to generate more profit. 

This however is on the lower end of the scale when considering net neutrality. The problem is the current lack of legislation. If a New Zealand ISP was to strike an exclusive deal with a service such as Amazon Prime, nothing will stop that ISP from blocking the usage of Netflix for all of its customers even though some could already be paying for their Netflix subscription. And while consumers stand to be affected the most, they are not the only ones at risk. Smaller ISP’s and SME’s might also take a big hit while there are no net neutrality laws in place. Companies with less popular products and a smaller share of the market could slowly fade away if such deals are struck. 

Although the aforementioned example is quite extreme and will require quite a major shift in what is socially acceptable by New Zealand consumers, it's not in the realm of the impossible. Bit by bit, step by step, this could become a reality in years to come. In fact, New Zealand could soon find itself in a similar situation. Parliament has discussed an overhaul of the Telecommunications Act within the next few years. One of the proposed changes could effectively see network carriers (e.g. Chorus) gaining more power over the industry, and although network companies are currently prohibited from competing in the retail market, these proposed changes could see an end to that, which may translate to an increase in cost for consumers. 

This is why the current battle for net neutrality in the US is so interesting as it could provide a blueprint of what might come to pass, for better or for worse. That being said, it’s too early to panic especially considering the New Zealand government will likely act against a monopoly or oligopoly if one arises. 

Nonetheless, we will have to wait and see.

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