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Net Neutrality: A French Right, an American Luxury

On December 14, 2017, the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will decide whether or not to abolish net neutrality. While it exists as a fundamental principle in France, this regulation is threatened in America.

David Fayon is a French specialist of the digital economy, and has lived in the San Francisco region for the last three years. He is the author of Made in Silicon Valley : Du numérique en Amérique (2017) and Géopolitique d’Internet : Qui gouverne le monde ? (2013), and spoke with us to offer an overview of the question.

France-Amérique: What exactly is net neutrality?

David Fayon: Net neutrality is a principle of non-discrimination that governs the flow of data online. Every individual should have access to the same quality of internet, and service providers have to remain neutral by providing everyone with the same bandwidth. They cannot accelerate data directed to and from their partner sites, nor slow down platforms or services run by their competitors. According to this principle, there is no priority between the transmission of an email (a few kilobytes) and a video (several hundred megabytes).

Why is the FCC discussing this principle now?

Net neutrality guarantees equal access to all digital players, both big and small. This principle was developed by a law professor at Columbia University in 2003 and adopted by many governments. Emerging countries generally defend net neutrality, while more liberal nations tend to favor deregulation. In France, a law passed on October 7, 2016, defined internet access as a public right in the same manner as water and electricity. The FCC committed to net neutrality under Obama, but Trump appointed a former Verizon executive to the head of the FCC to give an advantage to Internet service providers such as Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T. There are political stakes at play here.

What would be the advantages of deregulating telecommunications?

Deregulation could open up competition, which would enable a modulation in the excessively expensive internet subscriptions in the United States. Telecoms in France were deregulated while protecting net neutrality. This led to a rise in new market players such as Free Mobile [that now owns almost 20% of the French market] and a general drop in prices.

And inversely, what would be the negative consequences of abolishing net neutrality for users?

Internet service providers would control access, and could introduce service priorities. Customers with the means to purchase premium access would enjoy higher bandwidth and have an advantage over other internet users. At the bottom of the chain, individuals and services such as Google, Netflix, and iTunes would be left at the mercy of the service providers. The risk is that different speeds of internet would be created. What’s more, limiting internet access would hamper innovation and slow down the creation of new businesses. Net neutrality allowed start-ups to appear and grow quickly, and companies such as eBay, Amazon, Netflix, Facebook, Uber developed thanks to this principle.

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