Week 4: Net neutrality

This has been a very busy week for net neutrality on both sides of the Atlantic (and beyond).  Most notably the European Parliament voted down various proposals to retain a strong form of net neutrality, which was almost lost amidst coverage of the ‘victory’ over mobile roaming charges.   Net neutrality is a notion that all internet traffic should be treated equally by networks regardless of the actors (for example, wealthier companies, sites or apps cannot simply pay for higher speeds and better services). There is a useful HBR blog on net neutrality which lays out many of the issues (largely from a US perspective).  The European Parliament did not challenge the principles of net neutrality, but there have been many concerns that the effect will be to encourage greater ability to discriminate. The fears of many were proven to be founded when almost immediately after the vote, the CEO of Deutsche Telekom claimed that startups would need to pay for access to for better internet service (one lesson being honesty is not always the best policy!). Outlets such as the Economist have weighed in over concerns that the new rules would adversely affect startups.

In the United States, in 2010, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) attempted to enshrine net neutrality in Open Internet rules. In 2014, a legal challenge from Verizon overturned those rules and the FCC was required to drafting a new set of rules. For background on the US debate, see a WSJ primer from mid 2014. This led to a new form of net neutrality being enshrined earlier this year.  In Europe, the issue has not only been a question of the language but also the different power dynamics in the European context, as described in the Economist article.  The European Parliament Research Service has an excellent review of the state of affairs in Europe as of mid-2014. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a strong advocate for net neutrality, has also offers useful portal to net neutrality resources on both sides of the Atlantic.

Net Neutrality is an issue that activates many in the pantheon of internet greats including Steve Wozniak (2010), Vint Cerf (2005) and Tim Berners-Lee in 2013, 2014, earlier this year and earlier this week in anticipation of the European Parliament vote. Laurence Lessig at Harvard Law School has spent decades arguing for what in 1999 he called ‘the principle of competitive neutrality’, which he uses to explain why the evolution of the internet has been so different from AT&T and previous communications regimes. There are, of course, a few internet pioneers who offer arguments against the principle, such as Roger Kahn and Dave Farber, former Chief Technologist at the FCC, for example in 2010 and 2014,

One interesting case is that of efforts to support ‘zero rating’, which is differential pricing that allows for some free services, but which has been found to violate net neutrality principles, even in developing countries such as Chile. Indeed, Mark Zuckerberg recently argued that net neutrality is a predominantly first-world concern and that there are real benefits from offering certain services for free, which should not be sacrificed on the altar of net neutrality orthodoxy (my words, not his!)

Ultimately, as the excellent 2014 article from The Atlantic on net neutrality expresses it, the real question raised is ‘where innovation begins and what government should do to encourage it’.

That leaves us with a few questions:

Based on what you have read, do you believe that net neutrality:

  • has, overall, helped accelerate the development of ICT and related services?
  • rules should be relaxed going forward? or should they be strengthened? or should the situation remain essentially the same?
  • has different implications in different countries and, if so, should it take different forms?