Net neutrality – internet that serves the many or the few?

The issue of net neutrality has been rumbling around in the US for some time now, but in Europe the debate has been quieter. Ian Clark on why that might be about to change.

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For many years there has been a battle waged over the principle that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and government should ensure that all data on the internet should be treated equally. Opponents of net neutrality in the US include a significant number of tech companies, including Cisco, IBM, Intel, AT&T, Verizon and many more.

Why is net neutrality an important issue? Well, there is the obvious point that equitable delivery of data benefits all of us. If certain data is prioritised over others, we are likely to see the internet morph into something very different to that we engage with now. Without net neutrality we could find small independent websites and platforms being marginalised in favour of the giants of the internet. The danger of this on a major information resource is clear: a substantial narrowing in the range of sources individuals will access for information, with all the implications that come with that.  Bruno Maçães, Secretary of State for European Affairs for the Portuguese government, recently put it:

Allowing internet services to discriminate between different sources or providers of content would slowly start to turn the internet into a particular message rather than a medium for every possible message…

Net neutrality stands for the very simple principle that the internet is equally open to every kind of content. It is about being able to experiment with every possible use of the internet, so that only the best survive and even these are not able to tilt the environment in their favour and stave off the next wave of newcomers. This debate is not about prices or costs. Let the cost of internet access be as low or as high as market forces and public policy will make it, but before everything else make sure that all data is treated equally. The internet is a sort of collective mind. Like every mind, it may become more or less captive; more or less free. Net neutrality is a question of free speech.

Despite the powerful opposition to the principles of net neutrality, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) recently voted to protect it, ensuring closer regulation of the broadband industry. Unsurprisingly, opponents of the principles of equitable data delivery have launched a legal challenge against the new rules, in what is sure to be the beginning of years of wrangling between government and the corporations seeking to roll back the regulation.

Yet, whilst the debate over net neutrality is nothing new in the United States (see this rather Obama-centric timeline), in the UK (and Europe for that matter) the debate has been rather quiet. Indeed, one would be excused for believing that this isn’t really an issue that affects us over here. But the same arguments that have been taking place in the US could soon be making their way over here, with a recent proposal from Latvia (currently holding the European presidency) threatening to pave the way towards an abandonment of the principle.

The Latvian proposals have certainly been warmly welcomed by some within the business community (headline on the Fortune websiteNet neutrality is not for Europe), which perhaps explains why a majority of the 28 EU member states have now voted in favour of changing the rules (who said the EU was a block to the free market?). In a set of proposals that include a postponement of the abolition of roaming charges across member states, revised rules would “bar discrimination in internet access but allow the prioritisation of some ‘specialised’ services that required high quality internet access to function“. The moves come amongst a concerted effort by Europe’s two biggest telecom operators arguing that certain kinds of data traffic should be prioritised on their networks. They have been joined by Nokia, who argue that “certain futuristic technologies” will need to be prioritised. It certainly would appear that efforts to ensure a two tier internet have hardened further in Europe as the US has re-asserted the principles of net neutrality.

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