The European Parliament’s decision late last week to support the principle of net neutrality is a victory for champions of an open Internet. But it will be a hollow victory unless other countries follow suit and the proposed rules actually become law.
Already we’re seeing the looming dangers of Internet fragmentation as lawmakers and regulatory authorities in different national jurisdictions develop their own rules regarding Internet access and content. While the appetite for military engagement may be on the wane in today’s world, the battle for control of cyberspace is just getting started — and the scope for bad decisions is getting wider.
The United States is a case in point. U.S. courts recently struck down Federal Communications Commission regulations upholding the principle of net neutrality and the U.S. Congress refuses to enact legislation defending the principle.
The Internet was designed to allow packets of information to flow freely and at the same speed, regardless of content or characteristics. So when a consumer downloads a movie or television program from Netflix — files that are typically very large and use a lot of data — that file will be treated no differently by the Internet service provider (ISP) than smaller files, such as email. Put simply, you can’t play favourites.
The principle of net neutrality also means that if you are a firm like Netflix or YouTube — a source of uploaded content — you have access to the Internet on the same terms as those firms which are sending smaller packets of information. It’s supposed to be a level playing field.
In some countries, though, ISPs — which are monopolies or enjoy an oligopolistic advantage in their local market — have sought to levy additional fees on content providers, or to block or slow down the delivery of content by competitors over their networks.
That was the case with Verizon, the U.S. telecomm giant, which challenged FCC rules on net neutrality. A similar battle looms in Canada if ISPs put data caps on content in order to create a two-tier advantage.
We’re looking at an Internet highway with the functional equivalent of toll booths and HOV lanes — which would put companies like Netflix at a competitive disadvantage with ISP rivals offering similar services which control the network. Consumers too would suffer, either because content is blocked or because they have to pay more to access certain kinds of services.
The European Parliament effectively ruled against such anticompetitive practices. Under the proposed legislation, major European ISPs like Vodaphone or Deutsche Telekom will not be allowed to block content and will have to offer services over their networks that do not discriminate against their competition. But the proposed legislation will still have to be ratified by the new Parliament after elections are held in May. And even then, the rules will have to be thrashed out with the European Commission before they can be implemented.
If Europe and the U.S. go their separate ways on the principle of net neutrality, imagine what would happen in the rest of the world where authoritarian states like China and Russia are in the business of heavily regulating Internet content and restricting access to what their citizens get to see on the Internet.
The other big recent development in cyberworld was the Obama administration’s decision last month to cede U.S. control over the management of Internet domain names through ICANN — the non-profit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers — to a new (and as yet unspecified) international authority. The U.S. also attached some key conditions before such a handover can take place. It stipulated that ICANN can’t be controlled by national governments or by the UN — which could allow Russia and China and other authoritarian states to exert greater control over the Internet.
The U.S. decision on ICANN may have been prompted in part by political expediency — to deflect attention from the Snowden revelations and concerns about ‘oversight’ and invasion of privacy by the National Security Agency (NSA).
But we should be under no illusions that the handover of ICANN to ‘something else’ is a done deal. Some observers are skeptical that a new set of governance arrangements can be put in place by the end of next year. And it might be hard to get a consensus view given the vast array of stakeholders involved, which include civil society, corporate interests and governments.
And if even if some kind of transfer authority arrangement can be secured, the bigger problem will getting the U.S. Congress to agree. Congress continues to drag its feet on issues like IMF reform, where it is reluctant to cede U.S. hegemony. Similar reservations will apply to the Internet.