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Welcome to our portal dedicated to Network neutrality

Network neutrality is a topic that has attracted a lot of attention in recent years. Internet service providers (ISPs), network operators, Internet companies, civil society groups, and regulators have engaged in long debates over what net neutrality actually means, and whether and how this principle should be protected.

Technical, economic, and human rights issues have been in the focus of these debates. In some countries, the net neutrality principle is enshrined in laws or regulations. In other countries, the matter is left for the market to address. As network providers are introducing new business models – such as zero-rating services – the debate continues.

Diplo has been exploring these and other issues around net neutrality, through courses, awareness-raising sessions and events, policy research and analysis, illustrations, videos, and other resources. The GIP Digital Watch observatory, operated by DiploFoundation, provides regular updates on net neutrality developments, as well as information about actors, events, and processes addressing the topic.

What is net neutrality?



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.

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 and human rights aspects in the net 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. Arguments for and against zero-rating are explored in the dedicated section below.

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.

Main arguments in the net neutrality debate



The position of the main players in the net neutrality debate is in a state of constant flux. Some of the main proponents of net neutrality include consumer advocates, some technology companies, Internet companies such as Google, eBay, and Amazon, and software companies like Microsoft. Opposers of net neutrality range from large telecom companies, ISPs, and producers of network equipment and hardware, to producers of video and multimedia materails. 

The main arguments in the net neutrality debate revolve around four broad issues: past/future, economic issue, ethical issues, and regulation.

                                   

The position of the main players in the net neutrality debate is in a state of constant flux. Some of the main proponents of net neutrality include consumer advocates, some technology companies, Internet companies such as Google, eBay, and Amazon, and software companies like Microsoft. Opposers of net neutrality range from large telecom companies, ISPs, and producers of network equipment and hardware, to producers of video and multimedia materails. 

The main arguments in the net neutrality debate revolve around four broad issues: past/future, economic issue, ethical issues, and regulation.

                                   

Zero-rating services



Zero-rating services, offered by telecom providers often in cooperation with providers of content and services (known as over-the-top – or OTT – providers), offer mobile users free access to a hand-picked range of Internet services or ap-plications. If the user already has a data plan, such access would typically not count towards the data threshold.

Facebook’s Free Basics is one of the most widely known examples of zero-rating services. Introduced in 2014 in several developing and less developed countries, the service provides users with access to Facebook, Wikipedia, weather reports, health sites, and a limited number of other services. 

Alternative initiatives have also emerged. Mozilla’s Equal Rat-ing which is offered in partnership with a telecom provider, for instance, offers Bangladeshi users 20MB of unrestricted data in exchange for viewing an advert. In several African countries, the package includes a $40 smartphone (running on a Firefox OS), and free voice, text, and data services for a limited time.

The main arguments

Although zero-rating services are increasingly adopted in many parts of the world, this has become a controversial subject.

Zero-rating services, offered by telecom providers often in cooperation with providers of content and services (known as over-the-top – or OTT – providers), offer mobile users free access to a hand-picked range of Internet services or ap-plications. If the user already has a data plan, such access would typically not count towards the data threshold.

Facebook’s Free Basics is one of the most widely known examples of zero-rating services. Introduced in 2014 in several developing and less developed countries, the service provides users with access to Facebook, Wikipedia, weather reports, health sites, and a limited number of other services. 

Alternative initiatives have also emerged. Mozilla’s Equal Rat-ing which is offered in partnership with a telecom provider, for instance, offers Bangladeshi users 20MB of unrestricted data in exchange for viewing an advert. In several African countries, the package includes a $40 smartphone (running on a Firefox OS), and free voice, text, and data services for a limited time.

The main arguments

Although zero-rating services are increasingly adopted in many parts of the world, this has become a controversial subject.

On one hand, proponents argue that the service is particularly important in countries where Internet access rates are low, in that zero-rating can help connect ‘the next billion users’. When offered free of charge, zero-rating gives users who cannot afford a data plan access to (some) online information; when offered as part of a data plan, it lowers the cost of access to online information. Supporters of zero-rating therefore argue that access to some information is preferable to no access at all. In addition, free access to certain types of applications can generate demand for wider Internet access, indirectly encouraging telecom operators to invest in building and deploy- ing infrastructure.

On the other hand, opponents argue that zero-rating prioritises certain services over others, and, as such, challenges the principle of net neutrality and harms market competition and innovation. Some also express concern over the implications that zero-rating could have for users’ rights, in that such services could conflict with a user’s right to information when seen as part of the broader right to freedom of expression. Another concern is that the new users are provided access to only a segment of the Internet, giving the impression that those services are all there is to the Internet. One of the consequences is that zero-rating could therefore distort users’ understanding of the value of open Internet.

Identifying common denominators

Despite the seemingly clear-cut arguments, there are many open questions: Will it be necessary to subsidise the cost of access to help connect the next one billion users? Can the issues be resolved if zero-rating services offered more edu- cational and local content among its hand-picked services? Should users themselves be allowed to decide which services they would like to use?

While there are already a number of studies that look into the effects of zero-rating services, more research is needed to help answer other key questions: If users are allowed access to only a limited number of services, can we really say that such services increase access to the Internet? Do such services lead to ‘walled gardens’, or are they a step in the right direction in terms of connecting the next one billion users?

We may however be able to identify a few common denomi-nators in the main arguments and approaches.

  • A one-size-fits-all approach is unlikely to work. Instead, regulatory mechanisms should look towards local interests and dynamics, since local needs define public interest, and local dynamics demand different approaches.
  • Data plans should offer users as much choice as possible.
  • As a minimum, zero-rating plans and practices need to be monitored by regulators and discussed on a case-by-case basis.
  • The long-term effects of zero-rating services also need be considered.
  • Policy discussions should be based on evidence-based research and involve various stakeholders and communities.

Meanwhile, the controversy over Free Basics has led some countries – such as India and Egypt – to suspend or block the service. Regulators in countries such as Brazil are closely watching the implications of zero-rating on competition and consumer rights. In other countries such as Slovenia, existing regulation protecting net neutrality was directly implemented to ban zero-rating, arguing that the challenges go beyond competition law. 

Training



Intro to Internet Governance

Start Date: 19 February 2018

Technology and Policy

Start Date: 24 July 2017

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Books, publications, and articles



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Diplo addresses the subject of network neutrality through research, courses (online and in situ), policy discussions, and publications. We invite you to join us:

Diplo addresses the subject of network neutrality through research, courses (online and in situ), policy discussions, and publications. We invite you to join us:

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