‘Beyond scary’: Internet war's threat to Australia
US INTERNET customers are freaking out about a decision that could block access to certain websites and slow down others.
The country's internet regulator wanted to dismantle former president Barack Obama's net neutrality rules, which ensure that all data on the internet - from the lowliest blog to the highest quality video streaming site - is able to be accessed equally.
The US Federal Communications Commission has voted along party lines to repeal landmark 2015 rules aimed at ensuring a free and open internet, setting up a court fight over a move that could recast the digital landscape.
While the changes only impact America directly, the decision will have flow-on effects to other nations and could mean Aussie customers and business especially get a raw deal.
Here's what you need to know.
WHAT IS NET NEUTRALITY?
Net neutrality grants customers equal access to the internet and treats the web as an essential public utility, much like the phone line or electricity.
The idea is that anyone with an internet connection should be able to access any website and that the speed of the internet is the same no matter which site is chosen.
Fred Schebesta, co-founder and chief executive officer of Australian comparison site Finder.com, summed it up like this: "Net neutrality means the internet is free and open for all to use. Access to websites on the internet is equal, as there's no bias towards some websites being slower to access or blocked by ISPs [internet service providers]. This is a good thing because it means there are no restrictions or extra costs in accessing content on the internet."
WHAT DO THE CHANGES MEAN
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) - the US equivalent to the Australian Communications and Media Authority - proposed changes that meant ISPs can charge users more to access certain websites, slow down the delivery of certain websites and block access to some sites altogether.
For example, the changes could allow ISPs to charge more for customers to consume high-data sites, such as Netflix.
There's also the possibility the changes will lead to internet companies offering customers bundles, much like the ones Foxtel offers. For instance, you could pay for access to Netflix, but have to pay more to visit YouTube and Amazon.
The move could also lead to broadband providers playing favourites with sites and favouring their own apps and services.
The announcement was a big win for telecommunication companies, and it pitted them against rival tech companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon, who opposed the plan.
FCC chairman Ajit Pai, who was appointed by anti-regulation president Donald Trump, says the changes cut onerous red tape that kills investment.
WHY IT'S BAD FOR CUSTOMERS
Mr Pai argues the current rules limit consumer choice because they restrict ISPs from offering tiered packages, such as cheaper deals for partial access or slower speeds.
"It's depressed investment in building and expanding broadband networks and deterred innovation," he said when announcing the proposal this week.
But Finder.com's Fred Schebesta said that argument was a "ridiculous excuse" for anti-competitive behaviour.
"Pai wants ISPs to be able to charge premiums to access certain websites, and giving that control to US ISPs is beyond scary," he told news.com.au.
"If you're not nervous, you probably don't know about it or you don't understand.
"Service providers don't need to charge to access certain websites to build and expand networks and innovate."
Michael Beckerman, president of US industry group Internet Association, said the proposal "represents the end of net neutrality as we know it and defies the will of millions of Americans".
"Consumers have little choice in their ISP, and service providers should not be allowed to use this gatekeeper position at the point of connection to discriminate against websites and apps," he said in a statement.
WILL THE CHANGES AFFECT AUSTRALIANS?
Everyday Australian internet users are unlikely to be affected directly, but Aussie businesses could be damaged by the changes, Mr Schebesta says.
"Many Australian businesses that are operating internationally rely on hosting and other services from US providers. If the US internet service provider market shrinks because of the rule change, that's going to have a flow-on effect on those Australian businesses," he told news.com.au.
"It could impact Australian websites that are trying to target US internet users if ISPs decide to block them.
"It can also impact Australian start-ups as it might limit their ability to afford the costs of being available on ISPs in the US.
"It's a very anti-competitive move. If it passes, it sets a precedent for other countries to follow."
But Mr Schebesta said any impact on Aussie internet users would "take a while to flow through, if it happens at all".
One way it could impact Aussies is if streaming services such as Netflix are forced to pay ISPs more for the internet's "fast lanes", which give faster and better access to customers. Any increases in operating costs are likely to be passed on to us.
SHOULD AUSTRALIA ADOPT NET NEUTRALITY RULES?
Australia does not have net neutrality laws, but Mr Schebesta said our strong consumer laws protected customers from ISPs charging more to access parts of the internet or slowing down certain sites.
"I don't think we need net neutrality rules in Australia right now, but I do think we will need them if the US dismantles its regulations and allows ISPs to charge a premium to access the internet," he said.
While US internet companies such as AT&T are cheering, customers are angry about the news.
Web crusaders, such as Fight for the Future, have mobilised their followers to campaign against killing net neutrality.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau previously said he was "very concerned" about the attack on an open internet.
"Net neutrality is something that is essential for small businesses, for consumers, and it is essential to keep the freedom associated with the internet alive," he said on Wednesday.
Former FCC commissioner Michael Copps said Mr Pai's "scorched-earth plan" would be a "disaster for consumers and yet another handout for big business".
America's biggest ISPs say they don't plan to block sites or throttle speeds - and argue that customers would punish them for doing so.
AT&T said any company "foolish" enough to manipulate the open internet would be "quickly and decisively called out".