What is “Net Neutrality”?
Network neutrality is the view that all traffic on the internet should be “treated equally”. That means that access to all websites, web content and other internet platforms is the same for all internet users and only restricted by their hardware or software capabilities (i.e. connection speeds).
It’s a bit like having a subscription to satellite/cable television and having the same services regardless of which company you subscribe to.
Why is this important?
The internet is the most open medium in existence and a major technological and social breakthrough – although I don’t think it’s correct to say it’s completely unrestricted. Companies can come out of nowhere and become major players in their field. It can be a force for political change and it’s an important weapon in the fight against corruption and in local and global campaigns for greater transparency.
Of course the internet has its darker side. The so-called “deep web“, however, isn’t something 99.9% of people know about, let alone access regularly (it requires certain software and proxies). Most of the extreme pornography, hacking and copyright infringement will start off there with a little of it making it’s way up into the visible “surface web”.
What threatens it?
Many telecommunication providers see potential in offering “tiered” access to the internet. That means a company could charge more for faster access to certain websites or web services when, currently, everything is open to everybody unless blocked. It could also mean bigger companies could block the websites of potential competitors or start-ups that threaten their business.
Using my earlier satellite television analogy. The internet could become a marketplace with differences between ISPs being like those between Sky, Virgin Media or ESPN. You might be able to access Facebook on all ISPs, but a few sites/services – for arguments sake iTunes, Netflix, Skype or Twitter – could become “exclusive” to certain ISPs, or slower depending on how much you’re willing to pay.
The latest threat comes in the fight against online copyright infringement. I’m certainly not condoning it by the way and agree that there needs to be a sensible resolution to the issue. In the US the “Stop Online Piracy Act” (SOPA) and the “Protect IP Act” (PIPA) are the two latest attempts to clamp down on online piracy. Both are very wide ranging in scope and vague in their definitions. It could – in the loosest definitions possible – allow authorities to close websites that host user content (like Youtube videos with a soundtrack in the background), bar search engines or ISPs from allowing access to sites that breach copyright infringement (i.e Torrents) and, as a result, possibly discourage investment in new internet ventures – potentially costing jobs rather than saving them.
SOPA/PIPA look unlikely to be passed by the US Congress. However a new bill has been introduced by the creator of SOPA called the “Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act“. This Bill includes measures that would allow the tracking of IP addresses and financial details under the cover of a welcome arsenal in the fight against child pornography.
Perhaps what the US really needs a “Neutral Titles for Bills Act”.
What are the arguments against net neutrality?
Obviously ISPs own the infrastructure that carry the internet, so any restriction on what they can and cannot do with it could be considered a violation of their property rights.
With the internet ever expanding, companies like Skype have been accused of “freeloading” on infrastructure and bandwidth that ISPs pay for, construct or maintain. ISPs and other telecoms companies believe that offering tiered/prioritised access would enable them to invest more in their infrastructure through higher charges to preferential users.
There’s also the argument that net neutrality laws would provide another “red tape” burden that would stifle innovation and competition.
What’s the current UK position?
The former Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative industry is on record as backing an end to net neutrality in the UK. Ed Vaizey said in November 2010 that “in order for the internet to continue as the open, innovative force for good that it has been for the last 20 years it is essential that all elements continue to prosper“. He argued that many ISPs already have some form of “traffic management” to ensure smooth running “without compromising on competition or consumer rights“.
The ISP Association welcomed this as a “lightly-regulated, market-led approach“.
There have been several debates in Westminster down the years, including one sponsored by American telecoms company AT&T. It was decided that net neutrality laws would be “extreme, unattractive and impractical“.
Even the US – where the issue is most widely debated – has what could be loosely described as net neutrality laws, or rulings in the judiciary that protect net neutrality in principle.
The EU is establishing a “framework” to protect net neutrality with pressure on the EU Commission at the end of 2011 to make new EU laws protecting net neutrality in all member states. Guidelines were issued by the end of 2016, though it’s unclear what approach the UK will take after Brexit.
What could an independent Wales do?
It would probably make Wales a pariah, especially to Hollywood executives, but I believe that “net neutrality” should be enshrined in any Welsh constitution. It could be a 21st century partner to “freedom of speech” or “freedom of assembly” clauses.
Belgium, The Netherlands, France and Italy have all passed, or are considering passing, laws that protect net neutrality to varying degrees. Many other EU member states – in particular Germany and Spain – are coming under pressure from their telecoms companies to abandon net neutrality
If the EU does establish some form of net neutrality law and Wales eventually becomes an EU member state then this might render that requirement null and void.