In a landmark ruling yesterday, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), led by Chairman Ajit Pai, voted to end net neutrality — the requirement for internet service providers to treat all the content they carry equally regarding access, price, and speed/quality of delivery. This decision, overturning Obama-era internet regulations, is a big deal and may shape the way Americans experience the internet in the future.
It could have significant implications for financial inclusion, too.
Under the new ruling from the FCC, internet service providers (ISPs) may give preferential treatment to content from applications they favor — unlimited access, differential pricing, or faster/better download speeds — while slowing or even blocking other applications.
Defenders of net neutrality call it the First Amendment of the internet. They see it as protecting the open culture of the net with web access available to anyone who wants to hear or be heard. Without net neutrality, say its defenders, the internet will begin to look more like the cable TV industry of a few years ago, in which competition is limited, and consumers are offered only a few pre-packaged bundles of services. They fear that ISPs will engineer consolidation in the industry by favoring companies they own, buy, or negotiate sweetheart deals with — and these will probably only be big companies. Some consumer advocates imagine a tiered internet emerging in which high-end consumers pay for deluxe packages and lower-income people receive poor quality and limited services.
Net Neutrality Around the World
Yesterday’s ending of net neutrality ruling applies only in the United States. Europe retains the principle, though it may not always enforce it. In emerging markets, regulations vary widely, and in some areas, they are hotly debated. Chile enacted net neutrality in 2010, becoming one of the first countries to introduce rules on internet neutrality. Mexico, as well, has such legislation. Despite much discussion around net neutrality in India, there’s still no legislation in place there. At issue in India has been telcos’ interest in maintaining their core telephone revenue in the face of competition from digital telephone service providers like WhatsApp.
At this point, we can only speculate about the effects of yesterday’s decision on financial inclusion in the U.S. and around the world. But if the net neutrality advocates are right, such changes in the shape of the internet could substantially hurt financial inclusion, primarily by making it harder for smaller companies and startups to succeed.
To illustrate how ISPs and big tech are likely to team up, recently in Sweden, Telia, a telco offering internet services, sought to provide a package of unlimited access to Facebook, Spotify, and Instagram (owned by Facebook), among other top platforms, while charging for content from other sources. The offering has been challenged under European net neutrality rules, but it marks a path toward industry consolidation.
Why Web Access Matters for Financial Services
As large internet companies increasingly enter the financial services arena, payment services offered by internet giants would likely be part of packages like the example from Sweden. Other companies — like fintech startups and smaller financial institutions — would not have the market power to negotiate their way into favored packages. If the fears of supporters of net neutrality come true and extend into financial services, that would mean less innovation, less competition, less variety, and possibly higher prices for the same (or worse) services.
In such a scenario, it would become harder for lower-income customers to use internet-enabled financial services if their end of the market is differentiated from the premium end. Reaching customers would become more expensive and difficult for fintech startups and small financial institutions aiming at a mass market if the ISPs shut both companies and customers out of the premium internet. Companies with deeper pockets may be able to afford faster (or any) access to potential customers, and it is conceivable, under the new rules, that an ISP could completely block a service that competes directly with one of its initiatives. If fintech startups are trying to nudge and disrupt the often massive, well-entrenched financial service companies, these companies will face fewer innovations challenging their business models.
In the worst case, we are worried that the “big five” tech companies, who already have the data and the access to make any other fintech startups irrelevant, just became even more powerful. Not only do they have the data they need to better understand and serve any customer on the planet, these major tech companies soon may be the only ones that can afford to access and engage with those customers, and we know they have big ambitions in the financial services arena.
The net neutrality debate raises fundamental and profound questions about freedom of speech, the role of a free and open internet in society, market concentration in the digital economy, and so forth. Its effect on financial inclusion may get lost in the more prominent debates and the titanic struggles for influence among powerful companies. When it comes to shaping the future of financial inclusion, a lot depends on decisions made without much thought about their effect on the financial sector.
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