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US net neutrality ruling could affect internet access in Australia

Related Story: Net neutrality rules ditched in move that could recast internetRelated Story: Why is net neutrality a thing again?

Australians may feel the reverberations from the US decision to end open access to the internet, according to consumer and digital rights groups.

US media regulator the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to roll back so-called 'net neutrality' rules that stop telcos from blocking websites or charging more for different services.

It means telcos can now choose to give faster access to certain websites or services, or prevent users from accessing sites altogether.

Overturning the 2015 rules was one of the FCC's most contentious rulings to date and critics in the US said it would make it harder for people to access content online and would disadvantage smaller online companies.

Internet advocate Tim Singleton-Norton, from Digital Rights Watch, said the move was a backward step.

"Net neutrality allows for everyone to access everything on the internet, regardless of how much money you have, the access you already have or where you are," he said.

"With that gone, you will now see cable companies and internet service providers colluding to create market opportunities. That's not the internet that we want."

Australia follows US lead on internet access

At the moment, Australia has no specific laws ensuring net neutrality.

However, the laws that guaranteed net neutrality in the US provided a standard by which many Australian companies have operated, according to Mr Singleton-Norton.

"With that now gone, we're worried about what Australian operators will see as an opportunity to change that," he said.

"In fact, we've already seen some comments, such as from the CEO of Vodafone Australia, that he is willing to look into this as to how he could change processes here in Australia."

As well as consumers, smaller internet service providers could also be disadvantaged, with bigger rivals having the capacity to offer packages that aren't available to smaller companies, according to Aussie Broadband corporate strategy manager Matthew Kusi-Appauh.

A demonstrator holds up a sign protesting planned changes to net-neutrality laws.

"Certainly, it could have effects if some of the bigger providers did start to, say for example, bundle certain entertainment packages, certain information packages, that kind of thing that they have access to due to their size, that obviously smaller players like ourselves wouldn't have access to and could potentially make Aussie Broadband less competitive with some of those bigger players," Mr Kusi-Appauh said.

"The danger, I suppose, is it could be foreseeable in the future to have a scenario where Fairfax Media or another large media corporation will then start to buy into the telco ISP space and therefore be able to regulate the information that users are able to basically consume by the internet."

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission warned it would investigate telcos that slowed down access to particular websites.

However, there is already a disparity in Australia's internet landscape, according to consumer advocates.

Communications Consumer Action Network deputy CEO Narelle Clarke said Australia was already heading down a similar path to the US through a practice called zero-rating, which allows ISPs to give free access to certain services such as Netflix without it counting towards users' monthly data quotas.

"It does affect the market because it means that Netflix is in effect cheaper than Stan or Presto or one of the others, or some new content arrangement," she said.

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