Are governments equipped to address network neutrality?
A discussion of findings of a recent survey conducted in anticipation of a decision by the United States’ Federal Communications Commission on net neutrality.
Next week Monday, 15 September, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States will be making a decision on network (net) neutrality, which is expected to have a far reaching impact on how this topic is treated globally. However, a recently conducted survey in the United States by tech advocacy firm, CALinnovates, found that two-thirds of respondents rejected the proposal of the “fast lanes”. If fast lanes are introduced, Internet companies would be able to pay Internet Service Providers (ISPs) a premium to have their content delivered faster than what might typically obtain for other users on the network.
That survey finding is not surprising, as there has been very vocal support world wide – even in the Caribbean, in favour of net neutrality, by both the business community and consumers. However the CALinnovates exercise also highlighted some other issues that have not been given the requisite attention, both in the United States and the Caribbean, which are discussed below.
Is the existing legislation adequate?
68 percent of Americans said they don’t think laws written decades ago to deal with the telephone system are capable of adequately dealing with issues regarding the Internet age and that we need new laws to deal with modern technology. (Source: CALinnovates)
In the United States the current and active law for telecommunications, the Telecommunications Act, was enacted in 1934. Though sections of the Act might have been amended over the past 80 years (!), essentially its premise and framework would be unchanged although today’s telecoms environment bears no resemblance to that from the 1930s.
In the Caribbean, there are still a few countries, such as Aruba and Montserrat, whose telecoms laws have been around since the 1930s and 1940s. For most countries, new telecoms legislation was promulgated in the 1990s or early 2000s. However, even in those instances, it is still prudent to ask whether the current legislation is still adequate.
Many of the existing laws within the region were written to address voice telecoms and to varying degrees, to establish a framework for its regulation in the absence of competition. Today, the focus has shifted to the Internet, which can support voice, among other services, and is a more complex environment. However, current policies and laws have yet to fully address this medium, as recently evidenced by the indecisiveness among policymakers surrounding Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and the blocking of certain VoIP-based services across the Caribbean.
Can government policies keep up with innovation?
Only one in four Americans believe that government policies can keep up with the pace of innovation that we are seeing with technology, such as the Internet, smartphones, GPS services and other innovations. (Source: CALinnovates)
Although no poll has been conducted across the Caribbean on this topic, legislation is an expression of policy. In other words, laws are based on policy, and so reflect a country’s posture on particular issues.
Having said this, and recognising the extent to which government, as the largest employer and procurer of goods and services in many countries, influence local business practices, it may be useful to also consider internal government policies with regard to technology. Though the Internet, tablets, smartphones, laptops, etc., are used widely with governments across the region, their application and use in innovative ways frequently is lacking. For example, many Caribbean countries still do not have well-developed e-government platforms, and neither is technology truly being used to optimise processes and introduce efficiencies.
How involved are consumers in the decision-making process?
Americans don’t want government or business to have the say alone in deciding how the Internet operates. Just under half said that it should be a combination of consumers, business and government that decide (Source: CALinnovates)
Traditionally, most decision-making processes worldwide were top-down – made by a single individual or a small group of persons – but affecting many. In those times in particular, information tended to be at a premium: a select few would have had access to it, and so would have been sufficiently informed and empowered to make decisions on behalf of certain groupings, such as communities, societies, countries, and even regions. However, technology, and the Internet in particular, has made information more widely available and accessible. It therefore means that the ordinary citizen can become informed and participate in the decision-making process. Essentially, the balance of power is shifting, but invariably, processes have not been modified to become more inclusive, but more importantly to allow consumer participation to directly shape (or reflect) the final decisions.
Image credit: mdavidford (flickr)