Growing the Internet Internet Governance Public Policy

Network neutrality – let those packets flow

Discussions around network (or Net) neutrality tend to yield more questions than answers, in some part due to the lack of standardised definitions for the terms involved, but also due to the increasingly complex environment in which the debate finds itself.

The Internet Society looks at Net neutrality as the user being in control of where they go and what they do online. Companies that provide Internet services should treat all lawful Internet content in a neutral manner without hampering the users ability to access that content – indeed this is one of the founding principles of the Internet and what has allowed the Internet to be the largest and most diverse platform for expression in recent history.

The prescriptions are easy: network management must be even-handed, and should diminish neither the quality nor accessibility of online content for users. However, some argue that those who are in the position to implement Net neutrality also need to weigh this against other needs and interests.

One such issue is the perceived trade-off between Net neutrality and Internet connectivity. Some suggest that Net neutrality is a secondary concern for developing countries like India, where governments and carriers are focusing their resources on enabling Internet adoption. But this line of thought pits one basic entitlement against others. Net neutrality, which essentially centres on non-discrimination of content, is viewed by advocates as integral to the protection of human rights online. Internet access, privacy, and freedom of expression are not mutually exclusive, and are equally important to new and existing users.

The issue is made more complicated by the emergence and use of middleware, such as content delivery networks, where traffic can be subject to additional management. But as some observers have argued, efforts to improve transmission from the backbone through network upgrades should not distract from the fundamental concern of Net neutrality: the treatment of traffic at the last mile, where ISPs tend to have unilateral control – and can thus act as private gatekeepers – of all the content that flows through the network.

Another divisive factor is the role of Net neutrality in enabling, or restricting, investment and innovation. A number of carriers and ISPs insist that a neutral network will constrain them from offering novel services and developing new business models which they need to optimise their revenues and differentiate themselves from competitors. Content providers, on the other hand, argue that Net neutrality will continue to guarantee a low-barrier entry for new players and provide a more level playing field between them and established players. It will, they add, ensure sustained competition over Internet service provision – rather than shifting the focus to specialised services – resulting in faster, cheaper and more reliable connectivity.

There is a lack of conclusive data on which kinds of innovation are being hampered or helped by Net neutrality, but existing approaches suggest that a balance can be struck between conflicting stakeholder interests. At one end of the spectrum are countries which have embedded Net neutrality in legislation, often as an amendment in existing telecommunication laws or a clause in new broadband deployment policies: Slovenia, the Netherlands, Peru and Chile all prohibit fixed line and mobile operators from blocking, throttling and charging special access fees for Internet-based content or applications based on their source or ownership.

Exceptions come in many forms.  Chile lets ISPs manage traffic as long as it does not interfere with free competition. Dutch legislation makes it clear that Net neutrality rules only apply to services or applications offered via the public Internet. Those on a closed network – e.g. IPTV, data-intensive cloud computing – fall outside its ambit. Brazil’s newly enacted Marco Civil da Internet makes exceptions for national emergencies. Similarly, Peru allows traffic shaping with prior approval from the regulator.

By contrast, a number of Scandinavian countries have opted for self-regulatory measures. In Denmark, the Danish Telecommunications Industry Association established a Net Neutrality Forum for telecom, ISPs and consumer groups, and has also released an industry code of conduct. The Swedish regulator has likewise declared that it would refrain from intervening unless necessary.

A middle ground can be found in Asia-Pacific. Japan’s co-regulatory framework preserves a role for the regulator as a mediator while preserving a market-based approach. Its guiding principles for Net neutrality, issued by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, encourages free access to the application layer, free connection with any terminal that meets technical standards, and reasonable pricing for network use. Packet shaping is permitted as a last resort and must be justified to users’ interest. Instead, ISPs are told to respond to network congestion by increasing network capacity. Privacy and transparency are paramount, meaning deep packet inspection is outlawed, and all measures to limit available bandwidth must be publicly disclosed and spelled out in ISPs’ terms and conditions.

Such models show that policy responses to Net neutrality are far from uniform, but all preserve its underlying principle. Neither do these approaches reject network management, but ask that should it be needed, all traffic should be given equal access to data transmission features according to their own requirements. There are a few, such as Norway, which allow ISPs to provide specialised service, on the condition that this is clearly separated – with its own reserved capacity -from Internet service and that ISPs commit to upgrading both. This will help to ensure that the latter is not degraded and continues to improve.  However, the rule also implies that countries need to set minimum standards for Internet service provision, which would mean that not only do ISPs need to be transparent about how much capacity there is; they may also need to invest further to provide both types of services.

As more people come online – and those already online discover new services and applications – there will be ever-greater demands placed on the network and the ecosystem that supports it. This will have both technical and policy dimensions to it. All stakeholders in the ecosystem – service providers, regulators, content providers, etc. – need to appreciate that without the user who subscribes and pays for the services, there will be no revenue. It is therefore vital that the user has full transparency on what services are being offered, and the manner in which these are being offered. Equally important is for the user to have choice in the offerings they have available, and that they are able to make an informed decision – rather than a choice being forced upon them; and they are able to experience all that the Internet has to offer without having to worry about what packets may or may not flow from where to where.