Network neutrality

Updates

Today Senators Edward Markey, Richard Blumenthal, and Ron Wyden sent a letter addressed to the heads of AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile, asking them explanation about allegations they've been throttling video services. The senators' letters said that the Wehe tests "indicated throttling on AT&T for YouTube, Netflix, and NBC Sports... throttling on Verizon for Amazon Prime, YouTube, and Netflix... throttling on Sprint for YouTube, Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Skype Video calls... [and] delayed throttling, or boosting, on T-Mobile for Netflix, NBC Sports, and Amazon Prime by providing un-throttled streaming at the beginning of the connection, and then subsequently throttling the connection". According to Ars Technica, Sprint denied Skype throttling and AT&T questioned the accuracy of the Wehe tests. The wireless carriers have until 6 of December to answer the questions for the senators.

 

At the Wall Street Journal D.Live Tech conference, Randall Stephenson, CEO at AT&T, said that "there are a number of states that are now passing their own legislation around privacy and, by the way, net neutrality." In this interview, Stephenson claims that these regulations "would be a total disaster for the technology and innovation you see happening in Silicon Valley and elsewhere is to pick our head up and have 50 different sets of rules for companies trying to operate in the United States." According to the Wall Street Journal, he talked that ISPs "should not be allowed to throttle somebody else's content", "there should be no blocking," and any device should be allowed to connect to the Internet without interference. Stephenson are looking for a federal law with only basic net neutrality rules like no blocking and no throttling, in order to prevent states from issuing their own stricter laws.

 

Today US Supreme Court rejects to hear the broadband industry challenge of 2015 net neutrality rules. According to its announcement, Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch "would grant the petitions, vacate the judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit [which upheld the FCC's net neutrality order], and remand to that court with instructions to dismiss the cases as moot." If the broadband industry won this petition, it could mean that future administrations will be prevented from imposing a similarly strict set of rules. John Bergmayer, Senior Counsel at Public Knowledge, believes that “this is good news for net neutrality supporters. The D.C. Circuit's previous decision upholding both the FCC's classification of broadband as a telecommunications service, and its rules prohibiting broadband providers from blocking or degrading internet content, remains in place.”

Freedom House's report Freedom on the Net 2018: The Rise Of Digital Authoritarianism shows key findings that: 

  • Declines outnumber gains for the eighth consecutive year, with almost half of these being election-related.
  • China trains the world in digital authoritarianism.
  • Internet freedom declined in the United States (mostly due to a decline in net neutrality protections).
  • Citing fake news, governments curbed online dissent (17 countries).
  • Authorities demand control over personal data (18 countries increased surveillance).

In his introduction to the report, Fake news, data collection, and the challenge to democracyAdrian Shahbaz said 'Events this year have confirmed that the internet can be used to disrupt democracies as surely as it can destabilize dictatorships'  [...] 'With or without malign intent, the internet and social media in particular can push citizens into polarized echo chambers and pull at the social fabric of a country, fueling hostility between different communities.'

 

                                                                               Changes in Internet Freedom 2018 Freedom House

Last month the California Governor Jerry Brown signed the toughest net neutrality bill into law. However, the US Department of Justice and industry groups representing companies like AT&T, Charter and Verizon filed suits to block its new net neutrality from taking effect. Today California Attorney General Xavier Becerra entered into an agreement with the parties suing California over its net neutrality law to stay the litigation and temporarily delay implementation of the law. This agreement will remain in effect until after another lawsuit filed against the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) over its rollback of the Obama-era net neutrality rules is resolved, currently pending in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. In a statement, California state Senator Scott Wiener, the principal author of the law, said that while he want to see the law put into effect, he understands why Becerra agreed to the delay and added that “after the DC Circuit appeal is resolved, the litigation relating to California’s net neutrality law will then move forward”.

 

In a brief filed in the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Texas, Arkansas and Nebraska urged judges to reject a lawsuit filed against the FCC. This lawsuit were filed by 22 US states with a Democratic attorney general and it is related to repealing the 2015 net neutrality order. According to the brief, the old net neutrality rules "offered threats to investment and creative problem solving within the ISP community". On the other hand, the states suing the FCC argue that the decision to eliminate net neutrality rules was arbitrary and that the FCC cannot preempt state laws regulating net neutrality. It is scheduled oral arguments in the case for 1st February, 2019.

 

The Internet’s success lies in its design, which is based on the principle of net neutrality. From the outset, the flow of all the content on the Internet was treated without discrimination. New entrepreneurs did not need permission or market power to innovate on the Internet. With the development of new digital services, especially the ones consuming high bandwidth such as high-quality video streaming, some Internet operators (telecom companies and ISPs) started prioritising certain traffic – such as their own services or the services of their business partners – based on business needs and plans, justifying such an approach with a need to raise funds to further invest in the network. Net neutrality proponents strongly fight back such plans arguing this could limit open access to information and online freedoms, and stifle online innovation.

 

The current situation

The first discord in the interpretation of the principle of net neutrality focused on network traffic management practices. Since the early days of dial-up modem connection to the Internet, traffic management has been used to deal with a gap between available bandwidth and the users’ bandwidth needs. In order to address this challenge and provide quality service, Internet operators have used various traffic management techniques to prioritise certain traffic. For example, Internet traffic carrying Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services (e.g. Skype) should have priority over traffic carrying a simple e-mail: while we can hear delays in Skype voice chat, we won’t notice minor delays in an e-mail exchange. With the continuously increasing demand for high bandwidth (prompted by over-the-top (OTT) services such as Skype, Google Hangout, Hulu, or Netflix), traffic management is becoming increasingly sophisticated in routing Internet traffic in the most optimal way for providing quality service, preventing congestion, and eliminating latency and jitter.

In the debate over traffic management practices, net neutrality purists argued that ‘all bits are created equal’ and that all Internet traffic must be treated equally. Telecoms and ISPs challenged this view arguing that users should have equal access to Internet services and if this is to happen, Internet traffic cannot be treated equally. For example, if both video and e-mail traffic are treated equally, users won’t have good video-stream reception. Even net neutrality purists ceased to question this rationale.

Economic aspects in the network neutrality debate

During the past few decades, network operators have started to change their business models: in addition to providing Internet access, they have introduced their own VoIP or IPTV (television via Internet) services, video-on-demand, music or video download portals, etc. They are now competing not only with their counterparts for providing cheaper, faster, and better quality connections, but also with OTT service providers. In this new competitive environment, traffic management may be used for prioritising packages according to business-driven preferences. For instance, an operator may decide to slow down or fully ban the flow of data packages from a competing company to end-users through its network, while giving priority to data packages of its own in-house service .

Operators also argue that the demand for more bandwidth - spurred mostly by OTT services - require them to invest more in the basic infrastructure. In their view, since OTT service providers are the ones benefiting the most from the improved infrastructure, a multi-tiered network policy model requiring providers to contribute financially would guarantee the required quality of service for OTT consumers.

In an attempt to increase revenues, the industry has designed new business models.

Zero-rating services, offered to customers by mobile telecom providers, allow unlimited (free) use of specific applications or services. In some cases, access to such services does not count towards a subscriber’s data threshold, while in other arrangements, users are allowed access even without a data plan.

Although it is is increasingly present throughout the world, zero-rating has become a controversial subject. One of the main arguments in favour of zero-rating is that it lowers the cost of access to online information (when offered as part of a data plan), and gives access to (some) online information to users who cannot afford a data plan (when access is free of charge). Supporters consider that access to some information is preferable to no access at all. Opponents argue that zero-rating prioritises certain services over others, and, as such, challenges the net neutrality principle while harming market competition and innovation. Some also express concern over the implications that zero-rating could have on users’ human rights, in that such services can conflict with a user’s right to information.

Debates on zero-rating have become more intensive following the introduction of the Free Basics service in 2014. Offered by Facebook in several developing and less developed countries; the service allow users of mobile communications to access applications such as Wikipedia and AccuWeather (in addition to Facebook) without incurring data charges. These debates have led to the service being suspended in some of the countries where it had been previously introduced (India and Egypt). This map shows the current situation of Free Basics around the world: where the service was introduced and how countries are reacting to it.

Besides zero-rating services, telecoms also refer to ‘specialised services’ – such as HD video streaming that require higher bandwidths, or future e-health solutions – that may need to be offered and would require high quality and therefore special treatments.

In the meantime, the market has brought changes in the way the Internet works: in order to reduce transit costs and time, content providers have come closer to users by setting up Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) – caching servers placed close to regional Internet Exchange Point (IXP) hubs or within big regional telecoms. This has improved network performance and costs.

Network neutrality and human rights issues

The consequences of violating net neutrality principles are not only economic. The Internet has become one of the key pillars of modern society linked to basic human rights, including access to information,, health, and education, and freedom of expression. Endangering Internet openness could thereby impact fundamental rights.

In addition, the ability to manage network traffic based on origin or destination, on service or content, could give authorities the opportunity to filter Internet traffic with objectionable or sensitive content in relation to the country’s political, ideological, religious, cultural, or other values. This opens possibilities for political censorship through Internet traffic management.

Policy approaches of net neutrality

With the network neutrality debate, one of the major challenges regulators face is whether to act preemptively (ex-ante), in order to prevent possible breaches of the network neutrality principle, or to respond based on precedents (ex-post) once (and if ) the breach occurs. Another challenge that legislators and policymakers face is whether the problem should be dealt with, with ‘hard law’ – encoding the principles into legislation – or if ‘soft law’ (guidelines and policies) would be sufficient.

In the USA, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted, in 2015, a set of rules in favour of net neutrality. Entered into force in June 2015, the rules ban three practices seen as harming the open Internet: blocking of lawful content, applications, services or devices;  impairing or degrading lawful internet traffic on the basis of content, application, or service (throttling), and paid prioritisation of certain content, applications or services. Starting January 2017, when a new FCC chairman was appointed, there have been concerns that the net neutrality rules would undergo serious review.

At EU level, Regulation 2015/2120 sets out the obligation for providers of Internet access services to treat all traffic equally, when providing Internet access services, without discrimination, restriction or interference, and irrespective of the sender and receiver, the content accessed or distributed, the applications or services used or provided, or the terminal equipment used. The regulation also deals with the concept of ‘specialised services’, allowing operators to offer ‘services other than internet access services which are optimised for specific content, applications or services, or a combination thereof, where the optimisation is necessary in order to meet requirements of the content, applications or services for a specific level of quality’. The regulation was followed by a set of implementation guidelines, issued by the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC).

Brazil, Chile, Slovenia, and the Netherlands protect net neutrality by national legislation. Norway, on the other hand, has chosen a soft-law approach, with the national regulatory authority issuing a set of guidelines for network neutrality (drafted in collaboration with various industry players and consumer protection agencies).

Events

Actors

(EBU)

In an environment increasingly characterised by digital convergence, the EBU is working on supporting its memb

...

In an environment increasingly characterised by digital convergence, the EBU is working on supporting its members in their digital transformation processes, in promoting and making use of digital channels, and in identifying viable investment solutions for over-the-top (OTT) services. The organisation has a Digital Media Steering Committee, focused on ‘defining the role of public service media in the digital era, with a special focus on how to interact with big digital companies’. It also develops a bi-annual roadmap for technology and innovation activities, as well as a Strategic Programme on Broadcaster Internet Services, and it has a dedicated Project Group on OTT services.

(BEREC)

BEREC, as the body bringing together EU member states national regulatory authorities (NRAs) in the field of e

...

BEREC, as the body bringing together EU member states national regulatory authorities (NRAs) in the field of electronic communications, has been paying particular attention to the issue of net neutrality. Aspects tackled by BEREC in its policy documents include  transparency, competition issues, quality of service, quality monitoring and IP interconnection in the context of net neutrality. Moreover, the Body carried out an investigation into traffic management practices (in 2012, together with the European Commission), and published research on how consumers value net neutrality (2015). In 2016, BEREC adopted a set of guidelines on the implementation of EU net neutrality rules by NRAs.

(ITU, UIT)
...

The ITU Telecommunication Standardization Sector (ITU-T) develops international standards (called recommendations) covering information and communications technologies. Standards are developed on a consensus-based approach, by study groups composed of representatives of ITU members (both member states and companies). These groups focus on a wide range of topics: operational issues, economic and policy issues, broadband networks, Internet protocol based networks, future networks and cloud computing, multimedia, security, the Internet of Things and smart cities, and performance and quality of service. The World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly (WTSA), held every four years, defines the next period of study for the ITU-T.

(CoE)

The Council of Europe has been actively involved in policy discussions on the issue of net neutrality.

...

The Council of Europe has been actively involved in policy discussions on the issue of net neutrality. In 2010, the Committee of Ministers adopted a Declaration on network neutrality declaring its commitment to the principle of net neutrality. Later on, and in line with the Council’s Internet Governance Strategy, the Committee adopted a Recommendation on protecting and promoting the right to freedom of expression and the right to private life with regard to network neutrality, calling on member states to safeguard net neutrality in legal frameworks. Issues related to net neutrality and its connections with human rights are also tackled in events organised and studies conducted by the Council.

(ISOC)

The Internet Society approaches net neutrality largely from a user-centric perspective, and its work in this a

...

The Internet Society approaches net neutrality largely from a user-centric perspective, and its work in this area focuses, among others, on: allowing freedom of expression, supporting user choice, and preventing discrimination. It also collaborates with businesses to develop solutions on issues such as network traffic management, pricing, and business models. Net neutrality also falls within the scope of the Internet Society’s research and capacity development activities. The organisation has produced several policy papers and other publications touching on aspects such as open inter-networking and zero rating. Its policy brief tutorial on net neutrality provides an overview of the key considerations, challenges, and guiding principles of net neutrality.

(EFF)

As a civil society organisation working on promoting the protection of human rights in the digital space, the

...

As a civil society organisation working on promoting the protection of human rights in the digital space, the EFF has been advocating for the net neutrality principle through multiple activities. In the USA, for example, the EFF has been involved in several activities aimed at defending net neutrality and the regulation adopted by the Federal Communications Commission in 2015. In the EU, the organisation supported the savetheInternet.eu campaign, which advocated for strong net neutrality rules to be adopted by European regulators. In 2014, the EFF launched, together with other organisations for multiple countries around the world, a global coalition for net neutrality.

Resources

Publications

Internet Governance Acronym Glossary (2015)
The Economics of Zero Rating (2015)
An Introduction to Internet Governance (2014)

Papers

Zero-Rating: Kick-Starting Internet Ecosystems in Developing Countries (2015)

Reports

One Internet (2016)

GIP event reports

Platform and Data Neutrality – Access to Content (2018)

Other resources

Zero-rated Internet Services: What is to be Done? (2015)
Policy Brief: Access’ position on zero rating schemes (2015)
The Real Threat to the Open Internet is Zero-Rated Content (2014)

Processes

Click on the ( + ) sign to expand each day.

13th IGF 2018

12th IGF 2017

IGF 2016

WSIS10HL

IGF 2015

IGF 2016 Report

 

The debate on net neutrality and zero-rating continued at iGF 2016, with a focus on policy approaches (Internet Fragmentation: Net Neutrality - WS173). The concept of rights, openness, access, and multistakeholders was brought into discussion; balancing these principles should be key to ensuring a universal Internet (Dynamic Coalition on Net Neutrality). The notion that there should be no ‘Internet for the poor’ enjoyed widespread agreement, with zero-rating practices being criticised.

IGF 2015 Report

 

As often happens at the IGF, an issue emerged as the hot topic of the week. A couple of years ago, in Bali, it was online surveillance. This year, it was zero rating. Zero rating is the practice of not charging customers for specific applications or services they use. The most famous example is Facebook’s internet.org, now rebranded ‘Free Basics’. The Free Basics service provides free access to content and applications to populations in a number of developing countries, with the aim of providing some level of Internet service to people who otherwise would have no service at all.

 

However, for critics of zero rating, this ‘walled garden’ approach conflicts with any rational policy of social development through innovation, as panellists from Can Internet Rights and Access Goals be Reconciled? (WS 126) said.

While zero rating in developed markets may have stronger implications for competition and unfettered access to information, in an undeveloped market, where there is otherwise very limited or no access to the Internet, does the provision of some services through zero rating actually empower, rather than disempower, users?

One idea discussed during the Dynamic Coalition for Net Neutrality’s meeting is the existence of alternatives to zero rating that may be more sustainable in fostering Internet access and interconnectivity, among which are community networks that provide a decentralised alternative.

Some have asked whether we are witnessing a new ‘cyber’ imperialism, where the well-resourced tell the non-resourced that it is better for them to remain non-resourced until they have full resources rather than enjoy partial resources. On one hand, as speakers in Zero-rating and Neutrality Policies in Developing Countries (WS 156) said, users in least developed countries might prefer some access over no access. But as another speaker said (in WS 126), ‘If you want to give us access, don’t give us these tricks, give us real access. Don’t give us condescending statements like you’re too poor. Just deal with it. Give us real access.’

As with the two previous IGF hot topics, it may be that this IGF is the initial brainstorming phase of the zero rating discussion, with all parties passionately telling each other what they think without listening quite as intensely to each other’s viewpoints. As with online surveillance and human rights, perhaps IGF2016 will see a more focused and mature discussion on zero rating – possibly as part of the wider discussion on how to bring access to all.

 

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