NET303 – Internet politics and power. All things are created equal – the importance of net neutrality.

The internet enables access to a plethora of content, and has an architectural framework that supports openness, transparency and equality. Net Neutrality is an important principle for ensuring an ongoing open access internet that supports innovation and creativity, promotes free speech, inhibits censorship and shares control, and also enables competition. There should be no discrimination or priority given to any parts of the internet over other parts, although there are some situations where it is reasonable to do so. Neutrality of the internet ensures all things are able to be accessed equally, with control and innovation taking place on the edge of the network by end users rather than in the network itself.

Net Neutrality is a term coined by Tim Wu in 2002 in his article ‘A proposal for Network Neutrality’ to describe a principle that addresses the need to balance the ‘legitimate interest of broadband carriers in administering their networks with the danger of harm to new application markets’ (Wu, 2002, p1). The purpose of Wu’s proposal is to allow access to any internet application, using any kind of network, while still enabling service providers to monitor any abuse of the network (2002, p10).  Sansing (2014) simplifies Net Neutrality as ‘an Internet that passes along all bits of information at an equal rate’. Schaffarcyzk (2014) defines net neutrality as ‘an internet connection (that) is free from filtering, prioritisation, censorship or favour based on the provider of the content which is being accessed’. Sommer (2014) describe it as a principle that makes sure ‘the cable and telephone companies that control important parts of the plumbing of the Internet shouldn’t restrict how the rest of us use it’. In summary, net neutrality ensures that there is no privilege given to any parts of the internet over any other parts.

Felten (2006, p.1) writes that the internet is a network consisting of ‘end user computers connected by infrastructure that carries data between those computers’. He simplifies the infrastructure as a set of routers connected by links that pass packets of data from router to router until they arrive at their destination. Not a lot of processing happens to the data packets as they move through the infrastructure. All the ‘heavy lifting takes place on the transmitting and receiving computers’ (Felten, 2006, p.2). This principle is known as the end to end principle and is one of the key factors for the success of the internet. The intelligence of the network is placed at the ends and not within the network itself. End user computers are controlled by end users, and this is where innovation manifests and choice is exercised. Net Neutrality is important because it supports a continuation of this end to end principle. Copps, quoted by Thierer (Lenard & May, 2006, p.102) warns against any moves away from the end to end principle:

We could be on the cusp of inflicting terrible damage on the Internet. If we embrace closed networks, if we turn a blind eye to discrimination, if we abandon the end to end principle and decide to empower only a few, we will have inflicted upon one of history’s most dynamic and potentially liberating technologies shackles that make a mockery of all the good things that might have been.

Copps is expressing concerns that control of the internet would be shifted from the end users, to only a few (regulators, governments, corporations wanting to monopolise profits for example). Innovation would no longer sit with end users, who would not have the access and freedom to do what they want on the internet. Lessig, quoted by Lenard/Scheffman, (Lenard & May, 2006, p.4) concurs that the success of the internet has been largely due to the end to end architecture in place, and that this open access needs to continue ‘to facilitate innovation in the future’. The internet has been a level playing field, a perpetual frontier (Wu, 2015) where end users get as much opportunity to innovate and control their internet activities as each other regardless of who they are.

Mark Cooper (Lenard & May, 2006, p.119) writes about the connection between the democratic values of society and the end to end principle:

The Internet principle of end-to-end converges with the strong commitment in our society to democratic values. The transparency of the network and its reliance on distributed intelligence foster innovation and empowers speakers at the ends of the network. These are ideal for populist forms of democracy.

End users have the ability to use the internet as they choose at present and Net Neutrality will ensure this is able to continue. End users are able to speak freely and are empowered to contribute and innovate, knowing that they are controlling their own internet experiences and behaviours. Cooper states that the ‘architecture of the internet as it is right now is perhaps the most important model of free speech since the founding’ (Lenard & May, 2006, p.119). Whilst it is hard to imagine why end users would want to let go of this control, it is equally clear why governments or profit-driven corporations would want to assume this control.

Another method of exercising control over the internet activities of end users is filtering, which Villeneuve (2006) describes as a ‘means to control external content’. Whilst filtering may provide some benefits in removing access to illegal or unsavoury content, it takes away the openness of the internet and shifts the power of choice from the end user to the network. That is, the network chooses what a user can access, based on the pre-set filter settings. Levin (2010) writes that filtering may also restrict access to content that should not be caught in the filter, which is tantamount to censorship and loss of freedom of speech. Filtering takes place based on parameters that are input externally and not by end users, and as such removes any choice from the end user to determine what content should or can be accessed.

Wu (2002) also refers to Net Neutrality as non-discrimination, the provision of freedom to use an internet connection in any way, while setting out acceptable and non-acceptable reasons for service providers to discriminate against certain packets of data. Discrimination can take the form of blocking data pockets completely or lowering their priority, thus slowing access. Felten writes about different types of discrimination. Packets can be delayed, reordered or dropped, which will mostly be felt by users as a decrease in network performance. Some of these will have minimal impacts and are acceptable, whilst others are not. It is difficult to always differentiate between legitimate issues caused by network congestion and those originating from other causes. Felten writes that whilst such discrimination can be difficult to police, enforcement regimes should be carefully considered before being established.

One form of such discrimination is sponsored or unmetered data, sometimes referred to as zero rating. Consumers are offered access to certain online content or applications, and the data used does not count as part of any usage or access limits. Nott (2016) writes that if ‘allowed to continue unfettered, zero-rating could be disastrous’. This practice gives an advantage to some online services over others, often arranged in private deals made with the service provider. These arrangements would give preferential treatment to services provided by organisations with an already strong financial backing, which again impacts on innovation by reducing the likelihood of an underdog or start-up being able to compete. Internet founder Tim Burners-Lee (2015) argues against zero-rating as it ‘lets carriers pick winners and losers by making certain apps more attractive than others. Zero-rating hurts users, innovation, competition, and creative expression’. Nott wrote that some countries have banned the practice, others allow it but have complicated restrictions in place and Australia has no firm view on it. Megan Brownlow (quoted by Nott, 2016) believes that as long as there are protections in place, zero rating is good for consumers, and the absence of rules inspires innovation. Nott (2016) counters this with a quote from Burners-Lee pointing out that ‘economic discrimination is just as harmful as technical discrimination, so ISPs will still be able to pick winners and losers online.’ Berners-Lee (2015) argued against changes in Europe that would impact the neutrality of the internet, stating that

When I designed the World Wide Web, I built it as an open platform to foster collaboration and innovation. The Web evolved into a powerful and ubiquitous platform because I was able to build it on an open network that treated all packets of information equally. This principle of net neutrality has kept the Internet a free and open space since its inception.

Changes proposed in Europe would give priority to content owned by companies willing to pay for faster load times, allow for zero rating, allow for speeding and slowing of content regardless of congestion based on the class of the content and to slow traffic down when congestion was expected without congestion having to actually occur. Burners-Lee (2015) cautioned that supporting these proposals would ‘threaten innovation, free speech and privacy, and compromise Europe’s ability to lead in the digital economy’ (2015).

Cooper (Lenard & May, 2006, p.121) writes about the rising importance of economic impacts of open communications in the digital age, stating that ‘the Internet distribution technology or bearer service transforms economic activity, opens new markets, and supports even faster development than transportation and communications revolutions have typically done’. He adds (p.122) that ‘the reduced transaction costs and positive network externalities often found on the Internet enable new products to be brought to market more easily and quickly than in the past’. Cooper is supporting the benefit of open networks for economic success through competition and highlights the importance of a free, accessible, open and neutral Internet to the continued competition and economic success. The end to end principle is what has kept the network simple and cheap and fostered innovation and experimentation by developers at the edge (Lenard & May, 2006, p123). Cooper’s views link back to Wu’s perpetual frontier and Lessig’s views of the pivotal role played by the end to end principle in the success of the internet. Cooper (Lenard & May, 2006, p.131) asserts the impacts of closed networks or restricted access to parts of the network will be to destroy what Burners-Lee set up the internet to do:

To the extent that there is a new, digital network economy of the 21st century, the refusal to  interconnect or interoperate, the withholding of network functionalities, or the denial of access to content and applications are important socio-economic transgressions that demand much greater scrutiny because they destroy the beneficial externalities that these networks are all about. They are anticompetitive in the sense that they diminish significantly the level of competition for content and applications and undermine the rich sources of economic progress in the networked economy. They are antisocial because they undermine the ability of citizens to speak and be heard. Antitrust authorities and much of public interest regulation focuses on price as the measure of market performance, but in the digital age innovation and choice are at least as important. Thus, I distinguish between consumer harm and economic harm. Consumer harm is measured in terms of excess prices and profits. Economic harm is measured in terms of chilling of innovation and denial of consumer choice, which imposes indirect costs on the consumer and dulls the competitive process.

The innovation and experimentation will continue as long as end users are confident that they can do so without the network itself getting in the way. The complexities that would arise in the network if neutrality or the end to end principle were not embraced would inhibit innovation, experimentation, limit choice and restrict competition.

Net Neutrality is important for the ongoing success of the internet as a platform for fostering innovation, economic competition and experimentation for all users of the network. Start-ups and new operators would need to compete against monopolies and other organisations with large financial resources and/or more viable connections which would stifle competition and ultimately lead to a reluctance of any new players to enter the market place. Without a neutrality principle, freedom of speech amongst end users would be reduced, if not lost altogether. Any filtering or censorship will place restrictions on what end users can do and say on the internet and will shift control to a smaller group. Net Neutrality is important because it will support the continuation of something that is already working successfully – a network where control sits with the end users, innovation happens at the edge and the infrastructure that enables this does not in any way hinder future innovation and success. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

 

Sources:

Wu, Tim. (2015), Why Everyone Was Wrong About Net Neutrality. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/why-everyone-was-wrong-about-net-neutrality

Wu, Tim (2002), A Proposal  for Network Neutrality. Retrieved from http://www.timwu.org/OriginalNNProposal.pdf

Nott, G. (2016, March 8). Zero-rating and net neutrality: Time to look the gift horse in the mouth? Retrieved from http://www.computerworld.com.au/article/604263/zero-rating-net-neutrality-time-look-gift-horse-mouth/

Schaffarczyk, K. (2014, January 29). Australia’s net neutrality lesson for the US. Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/australias-net-neutrality-lesson-for-the-us-22245

Felten, E. (2006). Nuts and Bolts of Network Neutrality. Retrieved from http://www.cs.princeton.edu/courses/archive/fall09/cos109/neutrality.pdf

Lessig, L. (2008). Neutral Networks Work. (Video) Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_mYbYG-nXVA

Sommer, Jeff (2014). Defending the Open Internet. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/11/business/defending-the-open-internet.html?_r=0

Sansing, C. (2014). On net neutrality. Knowledge Quest, 43(1), 14-15. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.dbgw.lis.curtin.edu.au/docview/1561141169?accountid=10382

Lenard, T & May, R. (2006) Net Neutrality or Net Neutering: Should Broadband Internet Services be Regulated. ISBN: 978-0-387-33929-0 (Print) 978-0-387-33928-3 (Online). Retrieved from: http://link.springer.com.dbgw.lis.curtin.edu.au/book/10.1007/0-387-33928-0  (Includes article by Yoo, Cooper and Thierer)

Burners-Lee, Tim (2015). Net Neutrality in Europe: A statement from Sir Tim Burners-Lee. Retrieved from http://webfoundation.org/2015/10/net-neutrality-in-europe-a-statement-from-sir-tim-berners-lee/

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