Australia

Will the US net neutrality decision affect Australian internet users?

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Australia’s competition regulator says existing laws should be enough to stop internet providers teaming up with content makers like Netflix to create content monopolies.

The competition regulator says Australians have nothing to fear from a recent US decision to overturn net neutrality laws in that country, dismissing calls for similar rules to be adopted here.

The United States last week overturned laws that had protected net neutrality by forcing US internet providers to treat all content on the internet equally.

Providers were not allowed to deliberately slow down content from competitors, or sign deals with content providers like Netflix to allow free data usage or faster service.

Now with the Obama-era net neutrality laws overturned, internet activists fear exclusive deals between content companies like Netflix and Foxtel and internet companies, will become the norm in the United States, effectively discriminating against smaller players.

Australia has never had specific net neutrality laws, and the competition regulator has told SBS World News they are not needed, despite their adoption in other jurisdictions like the European Union.

“We have not seen evidence of Australian ISPs looking to inappropriately block access to internet content,” a spokesperson for the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission said.

“The incentives and opportunities to discriminate or foreclose are not as evident in Australia as in other jurisdictions,” he said.

“If problems emerge, it is likely that we could deal with them under existing competition law without the need for specific ‘net neutrality’ regulations.”

But internet activists in Australia disagree.

They worry big multinational content-makers like Rupert Murdoch's Fox empire, sold in part this week to Disney, will now move to ink exclusive deals with American internet companies, and then seek to replicate those deals in the Australian market.   

Digital Rights Watch head Tim Singleton-Norton said the ACCC’s response was “simplistic”.

Mr Singleton-Norton said while “collusion” between content companies and internet companies was not “widespread” in Australia yet, he feared that could change soon.

“That’s the concern. The precedent will be set in the US, where most of the content comes from, where most of the money is, and then that will flow out to markets like Australia,” he said.  

He said internet providers like Optus, Telstra, iiNet and TPG were unlikely to block sites, given the predictable public anger.

Instead he predicted they would move to cement their place in the market by locking in favourable deals with popular content companies, effectively locking out any new competition.

He said the effect could be particularly pernicious in the bush, where Telstra is often already the only option.

Back in 2015, Netflix set up deals for unmetered streaming with Optus and iiNet.

But in an extraordinary turn, the global content giant scrapped the deals and said it regretted ever signing them, because they were contrary to its political position in favour of net neutrality.

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