x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

If net neutrality is quietly killed, it will be a dark day for all of us

Laws being proposed in the US might kill off small websites and blogs, says Naser Al Wasmi.

In the late 20th century, technology was considered to be erratic, not in the way we now think about electronic vulnerability – in the sense of software crashes or data loss – but in terms of the impending annihilation that Y2K and the Millennium Bug would bring.

In the end, the year 2000 came and went without a hitch.

The world shifted into a new millennium without any of the blackouts, civil unrest and total Armageddon that some were expecting. On the contrary, the very fact that the Millennium Bug failed to materialise helped shore up our trust in technology.

That faith is about to be sorely tested once more.

In the US, the Federal Communications Commission is discussing a proposal that will have a profound effect on the way we all use the internet in the future.

The proposal would allow content providers to buy the right to serve their websites faster than other sites, effectively abandoning the notion of net neutrality that has persisted since the internet first came into all our lives. If the FCC’s proposal was adopted, it would usher in an era in which service providers will begin to discriminate against those websites that do not pay for the privilege.

The Washington Post recently reported that the FCC’s proposal would essentially give internet service providers the ability to negotiate with websites “in a commercially reasonable manner”.

In extreme cases it could allow internet providers to wipe out any start-ups, blogs or websites that did not have corporate backing.

This signifies a shift from the very essence of what differentiates the internet from other forms of media. It takes the control out of the user’s hands.

If you think this won’t influence those outside the US, you are very wrong.

As much as we’d like to think that websites are free, they are not.

Prices for advertisements, often the main source of income for most websites, are set by page views.

Websites that refuse to pay the entry costs brought on by this proposal will eventually suffer from lack of clicks – ultimately killing their only source of revenue and restricting access.

According to Pingdom, an online monitoring and evaluation service, the US hosts 43 per cent of the world’s top million websites.

Surprisingly, however, it is these larger websites, not the small start-ups and blogs, who are reportedly up in arms at the FCC proposal

Websites like Yahoo, Google and Netflix, three of the top 25 websites in the US, are leading the vanguard against it.

Last time, Google put up a censor bar on their logo, Wikipedia went black and people took to the streets all in an ultimately successful effort to shoot down the bill.

However, this doesn’t mean that the threat will fade away.

Many in the US Congress have long campaigned to limit net neutrality – the FCC’s current proposals will bring them to the fore again – and whatever the outcome, this won’t be the last time internet neutrality is threatened.

If such changes do come into being, we will all rue the day that our own inaction led to the downfall of the single most important invention in our generation.

nalwasmi@thenational.ae