Net neutrality – both sides of the divide
Net neutrality has been receiving considerable attention in the United States over the past several months. Last December, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) agreed to impose net neutrality requirements on broadband providers. However this situation is far from resolved – litigation is expected by those affected and the United States Congress plans to overturn the ruling through legislation. Although the Caribbean might not be able to directly influence the outcome in America, net neutrality merits closer examination, since we are acutely affected by decisions made elsewhere.
“Internet neutrality”, better known as “net neutrality”, speaks to the elimination of any type of discrimination in transmitting and accessing content over the Internet. The premise of net neutrality has existed since the Internet’s inception and has in part, facilitated its development to date. Through net neutrality, a level playing field was established where all users of the medium were considered equal. Hence, no entity or group of entities was given preferential treatment, such as faster speeds or better quality, at the expense of others. Further, ISPs were prohibited from blocking or otherwise hindering their competitors’ websites to facilitate their own advancement.
As the Internet developed, there have been growing calls to give richer companies, who are prepared to pay, some advantage over other users. Further, since current retail pricing structures for Internet connectivity in the Americas in particular tend to be flat rates for unlimited access, network operators and ISPs are keen to explore other options to increase revenue.
Arguments for net neutrality
The arguments in favour of formally continuing with the principle of net neutrality aim to reinforce the status quo: to ensure open access for all, consistent with the founding vision of the Internet. There is also a clear concern that the progress and even the impact that the Internet is making would be undermined if discrimination, sometimes referred to as tiered access, is allowed. Key views that are being expressed include the following:
- Net neutrality will ensure non-discriminatory access – big websites will not dominate the market.
- It will continue to encourage competitiveness among providers, both in respect of content and infrastructure.
- It will continue to foster innovation and creativity.
- It will ensure end-to-end connectivity. This point is linked to non-discrimination, but speaks more strongly to the unrestricted transmission of data over the Internet, and the seamless connection of networks between source and destination.
- It would provide consumers, who are critical participants in the market and so deserve to be considered, some degree of protection from discriminatory practices over which they might not have any control.
Arguments against net neutrality
As expected those who are not in favour of net neutrality generally comprise ISPs, telecoms and cable operators and other interests. They are of the view that mandating net neutrality is a form of regulation, which would undermine the continued development of the Internet without regard to the current conditions. The present situation is that Internet data is growing at exponential rates, and broadband networks must able to handle the capacity. Additionally, in recent years telecom operators have lost considerable voice revenues most notably to Skype, which is a software application. Nevertheless, Skype has been able to capture a significant portion of the voice market, thanks in part to net neutrality. Outlined below are some of the arguments made against net neutrality.
- By allowing preferential treatment, such as providing faster data speeds to those we are prepared to pay, would provide increased income, which in turn would finance improvements to network infrastructure.
- Allowing users to pay for different levels of service could result in more attractive returns on investment, which would encourage competition and provide incentives for more investment and innovation.
- Net neutrality would increase Internet censorship, and would give Government a licence to monitor Internet traffic and content.
- Regulating through net neutrality could hinder ISPs’ ability to implement measures that protect other users, e.g. filtering spam from emails and controlling the spread of viruses.
- Ultimately, net neutrality would undermine the continued development of the Internet.
Impact on the Caribbean
Entities exerting some degree of control over the Internet is not new. Several countries around the world, most popularly those in the Middle East and China, restrict access to parts of the Internet or to specific websites. With regard to connectivity to the Internet, the Caribbean is at the mercy of other countries, since much of the content with which we interact is hosted outside the region. Furthermore, although the Internet is considered a distributed network, much of its core infrastructure is resident in the United States. As a result, the current debate on net neutrality directly affects the quality of the Internet experience we have in the region.
The side of the debate that the Caribbean should support is not necessarily clear-cut. In a global context, our impact on the Internet in terms of traffic volume and users is insignificant, hence all arguments that prohibit discrimination are inherently to our benefit. Further, we are cognisant that we have no control over the rules established in other jurisdictions, so the extent to which net neutrality would encourage our continued development, it must be favourably considered.
On the other hand, it is indisputable that Internet traffic is increasing exponentially and the infrastructure must be continually upgraded to keep pace with growth. In that regard, we ought to be concerned that there is sufficient investment for network operators to maintain, expand and upgrade infrastructure. Although we want to ensure a level playing field with respect to access, that position would be considerably challenged if across the Internet, network quality and performance deteriorate (due to inadequate investment).
This net neutrality debate reflects a bigger issue: whether or not or the extent to which open and competitive markets should be regulated? In light of the Global Economic Crisis, from which is still we are still recovering, we must be sceptical of any arrangement that rejects some degree of oversight and pre-emptive intervention. Nevertheless, a balance is required: that users of the Internet are not unduly disadvantaged, while ensuring that there is sufficient competition, innovation and investment to maintain and expand the infrastructure in keeping with demand.
Are you in favour of net neutrality? What are your views?