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Net Neutrality – Not Just A First-World Problem Anymore

When news started circulating that US Internet Service Provider Comcast was essentially extorting money from Netflix for the ability to have their streaming service provided comfortably to Comcast customers, I was scared. In fact, a lot of my more internet interested friends were worried about what this would mean for a concept called ‘net neutrality’ – the simple idea that all data is created equal – not only in the US but all around the Atlantic and the wider world. However, the grand majority of my Trinidadian friends had more of this to say…

For the record, this is an incredibly uninformed position...
For the record, this is an incredibly uninformed position…

Turns out, just like me and some of my friends predicted, that’s unfortunately not as true as some thought…

On Saturday 5th July, local telecommunications company Digicel announced that they were banning certain VoIP application services from their network. It was something that the company was already doing in other parts of the region they were operating, in an attempt to secure their bottomline – ensuring that users of the cellular phone service make calls using credit, not data. There’s only one problem with that – if I’m paying for my data, I should have the power to get the data that I want and use it how I want. Not how Digicel wants me to.

For those who don’t get what this means, it represents an incredible possibility for local and regional telecommunications service providers to be dictate to customers what their data is to be used and not to be used for. By Digicel telling their customers that they can’t use the data they pay for or get their own access to for access to applications on the phones they bought, they are attempting to establish for themselves a consistent power to continue doing that to customers. And our silence is us giving them that power.

This might seem like a bad analogy, but let’s take this for instance; a telecom provider has two services – an internet and cable service. If you had their internet service and was using it to stream on Netflix, as were thousands of other customers on this internet service, that means that there are thousands that are potentially not paying for their cable service. But they’re incredibly interested in having their cable service make money, clearly. So they start slowing Netflix down an incredible lot. So much that you can’t even watch anything, really. All in an attempt to force users to get fed up and pay for the cable service. And, on the other end, if Netflix wants their customers back, the telecom can force them to pay for their service to smooth back out.

For those who don’t know, that’s exactly what happened to Netflix from from Comcast. And it actually resulted in Netflix paying Comcast for their service to be accessible to Comcast customers again. For a better analogy, you should take a look at the following YouTube video by ViHart.

What makes this situation potentially even worse is that this is happening in a competitive market. Yes, some would say that it makes it easier to respond to – Digicel customers can just switch to bmobile. But while that is true, the fact that a company can do something so bold-faced in a competitive market means that this could easily stop being a market mistake and start being an idea that all service providers can attempt to do to their customers. And because we here in Trinidad & Tobago aren’t aware of how far this can go, it’s possible for it to go that far.

Sacrificing net neutrality is giving service providers the power to decide how good a service they want to give you, and decide what you web pages and applications you should be allowed to run. It also potentially means governments potentially having an off-switch to your internet if they think that you are accessing things that jeopardizes their power. And if you’re not worried about that, you should be.

The good news is that Digicel has recanted its decision until the Telecommunications Authority of Trinidad & Tobago (TATT) figures out whether they really can do such a thing. But that’s just for the time being. And if we stop letting folks like TATT know that we think that telecoms should not have the strength to dictate our data, it will happen again. Not can. Will.

The net is a democratized space – all data created equal. Companies like Comcast and Digicel are interested in discriminating against customers’ and websites’ freedom to seek, create and share that data. That’s a dictatorship. And when you don’t respond to a dictatorship as soon as it rears its ugly head, it’s almost always too late.


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