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Net Neutrality Debate in US Could Have Global Ripple Effects

FILE - A man types on a computer keyboard in Warsaw (Reuters)

FILE - A man types on a computer keyboard in Warsaw (Reuters)

A decision this week by a U.S. federal appeals court to strike down so-called net neutrality may not only have major ramifications for Internet users in the United States.

It could also have ripple effects overseas.

Experts say the ruling could be a boon to other countries if innovation is hampered in the U.S.

But it could be bad news, too, for Internet users outside the U.S. because other governments could adopt similar rules and regulations.

The ruling by the United States Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia struck down a Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) order from 2010, which imposed net neutrality on broadband Internet service providers (ISPs).

Net neutrality means that ISPs are to provide equal access to all types of Internet content.

The FCC regulates interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable” in the U.S.

According to the 2010 FCC order, ISPs “shall not block lawful content, applications, services or non-harmful devices, subject to reasonable network management.” It also said ISPs “shall not unreasonably discriminate in transmitting lawful traffic over a consumer’s broadband Internet access service.”

The Washington courts ruling said net neutrality was not needed because users “can go to another broadband provider if they want to reach particular edge providers or if their connections to particular edge providers have been degraded.”

Opponents of the ruling say the decision could lead to an Internet that is vastly different from what American surfers are used to today, particularly because ISPs could charge extra for certain content or slow down the content delivery of competitors.

Verizon, one of the larger ISPs, led the challenge to the net neutrality order and welcomed the court ruling.

“One thing is for sure: today’s decision will not change consumers’ ability to access and use the Internet as they do now,” wrote Verizon’s General Counsel and Executive Vice President - Public Policy, Law & Security Randal Mich in a blog post.

“The court’s decision will allow more room for innovation, and consumers will have more choices to determine for themselves how they access and experience the Internet,” he wrote. “Verizon has been and remains committed to the open Internet that provides consumers with competitive choices and unblocked access to lawful websites and content when, where, and how they want. This will not change in light of the court’s decision.”

The court’s decision is not the final word, however.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said the commission could appeal the court ruling. Also, the FCC could adopt new rules that would reclassify broadband providers. The U.S. Congress could too get involved and change the 1996 telecommunications law to give the FCC greater regulatory powers over broadband Internet.

What the outcome will mean for U.S. Internet users as well as those outside the country is uncertain.

“This could have several impacts internationally,” said Jennifer Yeh, a policy counsel at Free Press, a Washington-based public interest group which advocates for an open Internet. “Content companies overseas who are trying to reach U..S Internet users may not be able to, if an ISP decides to block them.”

Still, the ruling could be a boon to startups outside the United States.

Andrew McDiarmid, a senior policy analyst for the Center for Democracy and Technology, said the lack of net neutrality could deter American innovation as startups could face a tougher time getting to market as “ISPs can cut deals that distort the competitive environment.”

"If innovators or startups here are disincentivized to create new services or applications, that may affect users abroad by limiting supply of new content and innovations," said Yeh. "Or, we could see those same innovators and investment dollars move for better opportunities elsewhere."

The world is watching.

Neelie Kroes, the European Union's commissioner for the digital agenda tweeted “Maybe I shd [should] invite newly disadvantaged US startups to EU, so they have a fair chance.”

Many experts believe the biggest effect of the lack of net neutrality in the U.S. to non-Americans would be the example it sets.

“Other countries may be watching to see how this plays out and may decide to follow suit, which could mean fewer protections for Internet users abroad," said Yeh.

McDiarmid said the ruling will likely ripple across the globe.

“I think it’s a case that the U.S. remains a model for Internet policy for the world,” he said. “Not having it here may make it less likely to have it in other places.”

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