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The US has never had strong Net Neutrality rules. Can that change under Biden?

joe biden,

The US has never had strong Net Neutrality. Critics of Net Neutrality have loved talking about how nothing has really changed after Trump appointee Ajit Pai rolled back his predecessor’s Open Internet order. But they miss one thing: US’s Net Neutrality rules were never designed to change much in the first place. Sure, they made it a bit harder for ISPs to shake down content providers like Netflix for payments by slowing them down. But that’s something that stops being a problem as networks get better and traffic increases. But in the United States, it has been normal to have wireless carriers offer certain services to users for free, while charging for internet usage outside this walled garden.

What Biden can do to save Net Neutrality, not just old rules

Zero rating is a problem, and has been one in the US for a long time. AT&T has a so-called Sponsored Data program, where streaming video companies can subsidise their users’ data consumption. In practice, though, only AT&T’s own streaming services, like HBO Max, seem to be a part of the program, giving the carrier an unfair edge. Even the friendlier Binge On program by T-Mobile picks and chooses which streaming services get to be on it, and distorts competition.

Make no mistake, zero rating is just as bad as slowing down websites; the outcome is the same: that users’ internet behaviour is nudged to mainstream choices. But American consumers pay a lot of money for mobile data, and deserve better than restrictive data caps coupled with “free” data for only what their carrier deems worthy. Competitors of services that are zero rated deserve a more level playing field. Zero rating shenanigans were happening before Ajit Pai’s rollback of Net Neutrality rules.

But now, president Trump has been voted out of office, and president-elect Joe Biden is likely to appoint an FCC chair who will restore the Obama-era status quo ante. But Biden would do well to not just restore Net Neutrality rules as they were, but also make them mean something, by giving them teeth with a prohibition on zero rating. Such a move may make consumers complain, because they are so used to telcos determining their internet use that a truly neutral internet — even with higher data caps and more freedom — might be disorienting.

But make no mistake: faster 5G networks are on the horizon, and blazing fast internet must be accompanied with more generous data allowances, something that carriers will be more likely to offer only if there are restrictions on competition-distorting practices like zero rating.

In India, where zero rating as well as speed-based Net Neutrality violations have been illegal for over four years, consumers enjoy high data allowances and a variety of video and music streaming platforms, certainly many more than the number of big mainstream ones in the US. That might be mostly due to a set of circumstances specific to the country, such as the entry of Reliance Jio and the fact that the OTT video and music market is still nascent. But strong Net Neutrality rules have meant that even if we have fewer such market players in the future, all of them — including those owned by telcos — will have benefited from a level playing field, where carriers don’t pick winners, or even players.

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I cover the digital content ecosystem and telecom for MediaNama.

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.

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