The internet war you don’t know you’re in

by Shane Dillon
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WHILE many cinemagoers are sitting down to a very entertaining War for the Planet of the Apes on the big screen, a very different online war is quietly raging – one which could soon ensnare you and me in its skirmishes on our small screens, be they our PCs, laptops, phones or tablets.

Right now, Americans are embroiled in an IT battle – no, not dodging the daily barrage of President Trump’s utterly ridiculous Tweets – as ordinary citizens have lined up alongside many of the country’s and the world’s biggest IT firms in a battle for what’s called ‘net neutrality’.

It’s a slightly complex topic, but the outcome is very simple: in short, a ‘two-tier’ or two-speed internet could emerge in America, largely controlled by major internet providers – and if so, that’s a move that’s likely to fundamentally change the nature of how the internet works around the world.

A two-speed internet model there is one which would almost certainly become the norm, giving a green-light to other internet providers elsewhere to follow suit, and similarly affect how we all access a variety of data online.

Right now, the internet as we know it is an open-access system; while countries and governments apply their own rules and structures to how people access it, it largely operates the same at source for everyone.

Despite the localised blocks and data restrictions, the river of information flows more or less at the same speed for everyone, with internet providers being like the taps and pipes to channel that data into your home, and your hand.

While we all know that some providers are better than others, at the same time the core data flows much the same, with their delivery systems being where problems can arise.
But what if the internet providers could deliberately slow down that data, giving preference to bigger companies paying for greater data speeds?

What if some data (typically, specific websites), particularly any with financial clout, was given preference, thus having the knock-on consequence of other data (or websites) being slowed down because of purely commercial reasons?

That, in essence, is the battle for net neutrality that’s already in full flow as I type – a battle to prevent internet providers from creating any restrictions or brakes that would favour some data more than any other, with opponents demanding that all data be treated the same.

Whether it’s a streaming episode of a hit TV show, an email from your sister, or a bill from your dentist – whatever it is, one of the core fundamental points of the internet is that all data is equal.

However, the US government is currently weighing up revoking a number of net neutrality protections, under pressure from internet providers to give them more control over data.
Their arguments to scrap such protections are varied – from saying that the controls are restrictive and affect their investments and returns to how any government controls stifle freedom of choice.

In essence, they argue that creating restrictions, and creating data streams with different speeds, would actually benefit consumers, giving them greater choice and driving market innovation – if you or I don’t like our internet provider, we’ll just pay for a different one we prefer instead, right?

Unfortunately, this ignores the reality that many consumers only have one internet provider in their area.

Indeed, whether in the depths of Ireland or Iowa, many people have a pitiful choice of internet provider, so the thoughts of a two-tier system where bigger companies demand preferential treatment and data control – thus creating a de-facto two-speed internet – is an alarming concept, and one that strikes against the heart of what the internet is.

America’s Congress is set to vote on the matter later this summer, with lobbyists there applying pressure to scrap net neutrality (whilst saying that Congress can still apply some controls).

The looming battle has already seen a spirited rebellion in America – last week, some 200 companies and groups, ranging from giants such as Facebook, Google, Netflix, Apple, Spotify and Amazon to smaller companies held a day of action, highlighting for users the issue and urging them to contact Congress to oppose it by this Monday, July 17.

Irish consumers will be affected too by this battle across the pond – whatever the outcome there from the decisions to be made later this summer, the way we use the internet here is tied to that outcome.

That’s a more pressing matter for us all to care about than apes rising up to destroy humanity …

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