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Singapore won’t be spared the coming Internet slowdown

The United States Appeals court ruling last month affecting Internet neutrality might seem like it has nothing to do with Singapore. Yet, the impact here could actually be far larger than one might expect.

Singapore won’t be spared the coming Internet slowdown

Under the new ruling, Internet service providers like telecommunications giants Verizon do not have to offer equal access to their networks and can give preference to companies that pay more. Photo: Bloomberg

The United States Appeals court ruling last month affecting Internet neutrality might seem like it has nothing to do with Singapore. Yet, the impact here could actually be far larger than one might expect.

The rather abstruse court ruling said in part that “because the (US Federal Communications) Commission has failed to establish that the anti-discrimination and anti-blocking rules do not impose per se common carrier obligations, we vacate those portions of the Open Internet Order”.

What it means is that Internet service providers such as telecommunications giants Verizon or AT&T do not have to offer equal access to their networks and can give preference to companies that pay more.

As the Brookings Institution notes, “net neutrality, the principle that all bits of information on the Internet are treated equally and thus users don’t pay extra for high-bandwidth applications and services, may be in jeopardy”.

Unless the ruling is overturned, Internet users here could see vast differences in speed for Internet services linked to the US. And those differences could affect both consumers and businesses in Singapore.

 

FIRMS WITHOUT DEEP POCKETS

 

In the business world, companies without resources to pay for preferential treatment are perhaps most at risk. New Republic senior editor John Judis pointed out the danger: “Can Internet providers like Verizon and Comcast allow some web companies to provide better service to their customers than their competitors by paying a higher price to the providers? Can Amazon knock an upstart by providing better service to its customers by paying off Verizon? The Appeals Court ruled that they could.”

In the start-up world, venture capitalist Fred Wilson told the BBC, Internet entrepreneurs could have their proposals shot down because they don’t have preferred access to broadband providers. “We love your idea and would have funded it right here in the meeting back in the good old days of the open Internet,” they might say, “but we can’t do that anymore.”

Large and small firms alike here that target US customers online could then face competitive disadvantages, unless they have the resources to pay more for higher bandwidth. While there is a potential positive impact if US companies targeting international customers move, say, to Singapore in order to enjoy easier Internet access, those firms would have a negligible effect in offsetting the larger negative impact on other online companies here.

 

MICKEY MOUSE OVER SHAKESPEARE?

 

The impact goes far beyond business, however, and could hit almost anyone, including some unexpected targets.

Schools and public libraries, for example, as President of the American Library Association Barbara Stripling wrote in Wired, “rely upon the public availability of open, affordable Internet access for essential services. Without net neutrality, we are in danger of prioritising Mickey Mouse and Jennifer Lawrence over William Shakespeare and Teddy Roosevelt”.

“This may maximise profits for large content providers, but it minimises education for all. Public libraries could face higher service charges for newly premium online information and services.”

Online gamers here wanting to play games from companies in the US could also be affected and, as PC Gamer editor Wes Fenlon wrote, may have to pay higher prices so the US company can get enough bandwidth for players to access or update online games rapidly. The list of affected parties goes on and on.

 

TAKING ACTION

 

It is possible that the ruling could still be changed, if the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reasserts its authority over broadband providers by rewriting the rules or if the agency files an appeal and is successful.

Pressure for such a change is mounting, and Adweek reported late last month that more than 80 organisations, including Free Press, the American Civil Liberties Union, Common Cause and even the Harry Potter Alliance, delivered a petition with more than a million signatures to the FCC at its monthly meeting, urging it to “reassert its clear authority over our nation’s communications infrastructure”.

Members of the US Congress have also introduced a Bill that would restore the FCC’s non-discrimination and no-blocking rules. Just like how this latest ruling took four years to overturn an earlier 2010 court decision, further changes could also easily take months or years.

While the natural inclination of companies and policymakers in Singapore might be to stay out of what seems to be an internal US issue, the Internet is international and access is vital to local consumers and corporates alike.

Since this latest development could directly affect a multitude of Internet users here, one option for action is for policymakers and companies to raise the issue at meetings of international organisations that discuss Internet usage, such as the International Telecommunication Union.

Businesses and policymakers could also share their concerns with visiting US lawmakers or American corporate executives. While the impact of these efforts may seem small, hearing from a faraway place like Singapore that there is global concern could have an impact towards making change happen.

It is worthwhile for anyone with an interest in open Internet access to follow developments in the US, faraway as that might seem, and figure out ways to help Internet neutrality remain in place.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Richard Hartung is a consultant who has lived in Singapore since 1992.

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