The United States: Toward a Free and Open Internet?

Is it necessary to guarantee free and open access to the Internet? The debate over net neutrality has been all the rage in the United States for a decade, and this Thursday, the American telecoms regulator intends to, once and for all, make this rule a common right.

Net neutrality means that a service does not have priority over another, and all content must be available on the web and be delivered at the same speed. There is no preferential treatment for those who have the means to overpay the access provider. The American regulator – strongly backed by President Obama – leaned in favor of neutrality: Internet access is a public service and must be integrated into telecommunications law guaranteeing American citizens a fair service following payment for a subscription.

This Thursday, this proposal will be subjected to the vote of the five council members. The primarily ideological debate between the proponents of net neutrality – in the name of public freedoms – and its opponents – who reject the bureaucratization of the Internet also in the name of freedom of choice – is not very clear cut. Because in this controversy, which has been all the rage for the last 10 years in the United States, there is no good and bad side but mostly companies worried about their personal interests who will fight until the end to obtain a ruling that is advantageous to them.

The issue pits the telecom companies against the giants of the net like Facebook or Google.

These two tribes initially clashed bitterly. Access providers, i.e. the telecom operators, invest heavily in the network and want to maximize profits from their activities. With the linked items that invade our daily newspaper and the streams of videos that will triple three years from now, very heavy investments will have to be made in order to offer bandwidths large enough for them all. So why not allow large content providers, who wish to ensure fast streaming of their products, to contribute? Netflix, for example, signed with an operator so that their series are downloaded much faster. It’s the beginning of a two-speed Internet where the heavyweights of the net have the means to outpace and eclipse the others.

In the beginning, the content providers were all in favor of net neutrality. As time passed, some grew bigger and became multinationals with hegemonic concerns. The beautiful unit of content providers split apart. For example, Facebook officially pleads for neutrality, but its open and no-fee Internet access strategy in developing countries makes only Facebook products available, as well as some hand-picked public services; for the rest of the Internet, the customers must pay. Google also evolved considerably and no longer defends net neutrality.

Will the decision of American regulators affect the rest of the world?

Insofar as the large content providers are all Americans, we can expect a spillover effect. For now, the guidelines vary from one country to another. Korea and Japan allow a two-speed Internet, while in North and South America, from Canada to Chile via Brazil or Mexico, one does not compromise with the neutrality rule.

In Europe, parliament voted for a proposal to guarantee it, but at the national level the positions are more nuanced. In France, for example, the Superior Council of Audiovisual (CSA), like the telecom regulator, pleads for a flexible system in a country where the telecom operators are still 100 percent French, and it’s not very surprising.

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