Net neutrality is a thorny topic. Fundamentally, it is the principle that the content of the internet should be accessible to all, and that the internet ought to be equally open to every kind of content.
In February this year, United States regulators (the Federal Communications Commission) approved new rules forbidding internet providers from blocking or slowing down certain content, and banning the prioritisation of some sources over others. The stakes have changed since we last looked at net neutrality in detail in September 2014, when service providers were given the go-ahead to give priority to companies willing to cough up, such as Netflix.
Opponents to the recent changes in the US are concerned that the regulations will allow new taxes on broadband and curtail private investment, but advocates argue that freedom of web traffic will spur investment in web-based services, while ensuring that overall, content is ‘neutral’ and inclusive.
Simultaneously, the Latvian presidency has made proposals that may be seen to run counter to the US. According to the proposals, Latvia would allow only services that provide a specific level of quality. Some say this strikes a balance, but others view it is a form of discrimination which ultimately compromises free speech and the freedom to impart and receive information without interference. A recent article in The Economist likens the debate to the struggle to conserve free trade.
Bruno Maçães, the Portuguese Secretary of State for European Affairs, sheds light on the topic in his recent article for Wired. Discrimination between different sources would turn the internet into a vehicle for a particular message, he says, rather than a ‘medium for all messages’. He also makes the point that net neutrality has so far made the internet fertile ground for innovation and entrepreneurship.
It would put start-ups at a severe disadvantage from the outset if parts of the internet were only available to those able to buy access. As it stands, innovators can develop products and services without asking for permission or paying to get off the ground.
Mark Zuckerberg, himself a webpreneur, is raising questions surrounding the issue of net neutrality with a controversial project to get developing countries connected. Speaking at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, his outlined his plans for internet.org. The plan involves putting ‘zero-rating’ into practice; allowing customers access to certain services, such as Facebook and Wikipedia, without charging for data usage.
Zero-rating is certainly a way to make access affordable, but it allows operators to pick the winners. Why should Facebook and leading mobile phone companies decide which sites mobile users in Kenya or India can access? Is having access to some sites preferable to having none at all?
Figuring out guiding principles as the internet evolves is an ongoing process– just like free trade – and this is just the start.