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Mon, Apr 28, 2014

[Icon][Icon]America loses the Internet?

• Post categories: Omni, In The News, Technology

So the FCC is looking like it's going to go ahead and destroy Net Neutrality - essentially, meaning that some websites will be faster/cheaper to access than others.

The techie parts of the Web are up in arms about this: They argue it'll destroy competition by favouring rich websites that can pay the ISP's "tax" over new startups that can't - making it that much harder for the next Google/Facebook/Twitter/whatever to happen; that it'll create a two-tier internet; and so on.

They're probably right, but I don't think they're thinking big enough. I think the possible outcome of this could be even bigger: It could remove America from its position as "Hub of the Internet".

To explain:

The vast majority of Internet traffic goes through the USA. If you send an email from Europe, to Europe, you can pretty much gaurantee it'll go via America. That's where most of the big players have their servers, it's how the Net is wired.

That was all well and good, until the recent revelations from Snowden shook things up: European countries started investigating the possibility of keeping their traffic out of the USA. Keep European packets in European pipes, as it were. There was, of course, a lot of outcry about this: The USA objected that it would put American companies at a disadvantage; end users complained that it was unrealistic since most content came from the USA anyway. You'll undoubtedly have seen the debates if you've any interest in the topic.

If the FCC kills Net Neutrality, then non-paying traffic starts to slow down. If, for example, Netflix refuses to pay for the new "high tier" pipes, then Netflix's traffic will slow down. Seems bad not just for US viewers, but for Europeans too: If Netflix gets slowed down, we get screwed too, right?

But if you're Netflix, at this point, why would you stay centralised in the US? Rather than pay US ISP's to speed up your traffic to non-US destinations, wouldn't you just put your content onto European servers to serve European viewers, and thus escape the ISP tax for all your non-US viewers?

In fact, most big players already do just that: Google redirects my "google.com" requests to "google.co.uk" for exactly this reason: To keep my traffic local so responses are faster. What the FCC are doing is making it even more sensible for even more players to do this.

It's also taking away incentive for the ISPs to invest in improving America's already-lagging internet infrastructure: If ISPs can slow down traffic that isn't paying them money, then they don't need to upgrade to high-speed fibre everywhere to keep speeds acceptable: In fact, they have more incentive than ever to avoid it - If traffic that doesn't pay their tax is running over a dog-slow network, then you have more reason to pay for the upgrade. If everything's blazing-fast either way, why would you bother paying for priority?

So the abolishment of Net Neutrality will gaurantee that significant services move out of the US, or at least decentralise more; and it will gaurantee that America's internet will stay slow - unless Google manages to throw so much money out that it finally gets its high-speed fibre everywhere, which is unlikely, let's be honest. And Snowden has already given sound reasons to keep non-US traffic out of the US.

If most content is hosted outside the US, if anything that goes into the US is slow and likely to be spied upon.. then the US becomes a bottleneck. And what does the Internet famously do about obstructions? Yes, it routes around them.

There's no intrinsic reason why the Internet needs to revolve around the USA. They have the main DNS machines, but that's just a matter of convention. The main reason they're the nerve center is historical: They built the internet; so most of the content and services are based there. if the FCC changes that, if the USA becomes a place you have technical as well as privacy-based concerns about sending your traffic to.. then the Internet will simply ditch the USA. The world will route around it.

Snowden gave us the first set of reasons why we should keep our traffic out of the USA. The FCC is about to give us another set.

People don't like change, but inertia only gets you so far. Could the shortsightedness of a few profit-obsessed corporations and the regulators they've bought be about to cost America what is arguably its greatest invention?

We might be about to find out...

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