Proponents of a "free Internet" won a major victory last week when United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman, Mr Tom Wheeler, unveiled a new set of proposed rules to ensure an open and neutral Internet.
His proposals will be voted on Feb 26 by the five-man FCC, in what could be a monumental decision that could set the wheels in motion for other governments to follow.
In the proposal are basically six rules, of which the first three are the most important.
First, Internet service providers cannot block access to any legitimate content. Second, they cannot slow down their delivery.
Third, and more importantly, paid prioritisation of traffic will be prohibited.
This means that a US ISP, such as Verizon, cannot get Netflix to pay for video-streaming services to ensure that Verizon customers get faster streaming on Verizon's network than when accessing another video-streaming service that has not paid for traffic prioritisation.
In industry-speak, the third rule prevents ISPs from creating "fast lanes" in favour of content owners who paid for the express service.
In Singapore, the Infocomm Development Authority's (IDA) policy prohibits the "blocking of legitimate Internet content".
ISPs are also not allowed to impose practices and measures which will "render any legitimate content effectively inaccessible or unusable".
It appears that this means that Singapore ISPs can selectively throttle Net traffic, so long as the service does not become "unusable."
This also implies that the creation of paid fast lanes is allowed in Singapore and is a position that Singtel's chief executive, Ms Chua Sook Khoong, has openly supported.
Maintaining Net neutrality makes a lot of sense for consumers. Why should consumers, who already pay a monthly subscription for broadband Internet, get better speeds for certain websites than others? The ISPs are morally bound to offer good surfing speeds to paying customers, regardless of the service the customers access.
ISPs argue that democracy on the Internet does not make commercial sense because they have to bear the cost of providing bigger pipes to link consumers to more popular websites and Internet services.
For me, this argument is a fallacy. Net-neutrality rules do not say that an ISP must offer premium speeds to all websites, but that it must not discriminate between different Internet services.
ISPs can, and do, offer broadband packages of different speeds at different prices to reflect the different levels of speeds that consumers can pay for.
Allowing them to create fast lanes to favour content owners with deeper pockets is to be avoided. Creating fast lanes for some content invariably means this will bring about slower lanes. It is possible that ISPs will place content owners on varying pricing tiers to offer different levels of content prioritisation.
The problem with IDA's existing rule that allows throttling so long as the service is not rendered unusable is that it does not set a minimum "usable" standard.
In theory, this means that ISPs could deliberately slow selected sites. Having said that, it would also be impracticable to set minimum speeds, given the complexity of the Internet.
If the FCC accepts Mr Wheeler's proposal, it will set a new benchmark for the rest of the world to consider.
I would urge the IDA to take this opportunity to relook its existing Net-neutrality rules, which, as they stand, are not bold enough to protect the long-term interests of the consumer.
This article was first published on Feb 11, 2015.
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