The global Internet governance model is based on several general principles, some of them related with the political decision-making process (i.e. the multistakeholderist approach and the raft consensus procedure) and other specifically related to the inner characteristics of the internet environment, such as the open access and the net-neutrality.

The Net-Neutrality suggests that ISPs (Internet Service Providers) should not give preferential nor discriminatory treatment to the transmission of certain Internet traffic over other traffic. Maintaining internet traffic "neutral" means avoiding ISPs to abuse of their role as "last mile" transporters that could affect the consumers' rights (free access, free speech and free use and choice of content, apps, devices) and their competitors' business.

It is already known that ISPs are able to distinguish different content of traffic based on different variables (by class of content-i.e. text-based info, video, audio-, by protocol -i.e. p2p file-sharing, VoIP-, by specific website -i.e. YouTube, Hulu, Netflix-, by specific application -i.e. Skype, BitTorrent-). So the question addresses whether the ISPs (Internet Server Providers) should legally block, priorize or delay the delivery of certain types of traffic on its network and why they could do it.

In order to understand all the elements related to the phenomenon of Net-Neutrality and why it has emerged in policy debates as a central topic of Internet Governance, we must take a step back and start talking about how internet is structured.
Since the beginning, the main objective of the internet is to transfer information as quickly and easy as possible from one point to another of the web. To reach this aim its structure was built following some basic concepts, such as the Baran's survivable network architecture, the Postel's Law of Robustness and the "end-to-end" principle. This last principle is essential to understand the net neutrality: it determines that the network is created only to transport the data, while the terminals -end points- implement the applications.

As a result, we have a "dumb" network with "smart" terminals: "All of the intelligence is held by producers and users, not the networks that connect them."



 

Structured in this way, internet looks like an hourglass with three different parts:
1) the Network technology, with all the infrastructure to allow the transport of data. This part of internet is managed by the Internet service providers, which are the telecommunications giants a.k.a. TELCOs (Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, Telecom).
2) The Internet Protocol Suite, that is a single internet protocol in order to maximize interoperability and the number of usable networks, to minimize number of service interfaces, and,in so doing, providing simple, flexible and efficient end-to-end connectivity.
3) The value added services (applications), the real content of internet: email, web, VoIP, music, movies, etc.

 

In this context, the infrastructure's role is focused strictly to transfer data as quick as possible, without analyzing nor identifying which kind of content is being transported. This is the essence of net-neutrality: all packets of information are treated (more or less) the same, no matter if they are transporting simple text messages, video streaming, music or pictures. It promotes the idea that a free and open internet is like any other utility people can use, like electricity.

However, ISPs are applying different policies of priorization/discrimination/blocking, for several reasons, in particular the necessity to manage the traffic to keep offering an acceptable level of quality of service (QoS) to their clients.

Today, just two applications, Youtube and Netflix, produce half of peak Internet traffic in North America (Global Internet Phenomena Report). People love to watch movies on streaming and upload/sharing videos is so popular: users watch over 4 billion videos a day and upload over 60 hours of videos per minute in Youtube. And take into consideration that in a movie there are twenty-four frames shown per second, so for each second of a single movie streaming we are talking about 56,623,104 bits of traffic. And so ISPs' started asking themselves: why do we have to invest a lot of money in infrastructure just to secure and increase Netflix and Youtube's business?

At this point, ISPs are pressing for a change on the whole system, making users to pay for priority access than for bandwidth speeds. And they are playing the card of quality: if a user wants to watch movies in streaming all day long, they could charge extra money for high-bandwidth services. If their proposal succeeds, the offer for internet connection would be something like this:

 

 

Source: http://www.theopeninter.net/

 

In other words, ISPs want to impose different options, different prices, blocking many internet applications or leaving them not completely free to use.

 

Net-Neutrality and Competition:

The limitation to traffic management has sense if we consider other two facts, related with competition. In the last years, the ISPs (in the US, AT&T and Verizon) are also starting video streaming services, so now they are not only the transporters but also the competence of Netflix and Youtube.

Secondly, Telcos' traditional revenues for telephone calls are now threatened by VoIP (internet voice calls).

These two factors are an extra incentive for ISPs/Telcos to manage internet traffic in order to promote their streaming services and reducing unfairly the performance of their competitors.

ISPs are already applying a sort of bandwidth speed management and, in so doing, they are creating tension between top websites and their users. The most controversial and illustrative example is the message used by Netflix everytime the connection in the U.S. is not sufficient, blaming the user' internet service provider for the interruption.

 

 

At the end of 2013, this tension arrives to governmental consideration. In January 2014 FCC has ordered Verizon to respect transparency requirements, but excluded broadband providers from "common carrier" obligations and failed to establish that anti-discrimination and anti-blocking do not per se impose common carrier obligations. At this point the question was even more discussed. But the parts started to negotiate: in february 2014, Netflix and Comcast signed an aggreement guaranteeing traffic speeds. Et voilà, look how Netflix traffic speed through Comcast broadband service has automatically change for good!

 

 

ISPs argue that these speed problems can be solved by implementing a differentiated treatment. And in practies they are applying a kind of inverse discrimination, by applying the "zero rating" policy: exempting certain popular apps from users' monthly data allocations (eg virgin Mobile applies zero-rates for Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest). This measure seems to be great for clients, but in long term imposes a clear discrimination between winners and losers: winners will be even more successful and losers will have to pay extra costs to offer their services.

The idea of having a diversified internet traffic is shared by many people, in particular in continental Europe. Just take for example the opinion of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who recently called for a two-tier internet, splitting the service in two, "one for free internet, and the other for special services" because "some key services for the digital economy would require reliable transmission quality and should therefore be treated differently than other data".

For supporters of net-neutrality, the non-discriminatory treatment of the data is the key factor that has unleashed the power of the Internet -as President Obama has said recently- allowing the boom of websites like Netflix, Youtube, Facebook and Twitter. Everyone could create an app, a website or any other web-based service, put it online and, if people like it, voilà! all the users around the world are, in theory, equally able to enjoy this content. All the e-business is deeply based on this principle. And that is why the government is entitled to intervene to enforce this principle as the best way to protect cybernauts' rights.

Notwithstanding this, cyberlibertarians are against any regulation of net-neutrality in order to maintain the Internet free from any governmental intervention.

 

The regulation in the USA:

Net-neutrality depends mainly on local policy issues rather than global governance. That is the reason why every country or region offers different elements to evaluate the impact and the necessity of regulating this principle.

In the United States, these are the many factors that make net-neutrality a very discussed topic:

a) few competitors: 96% of Americans have a choice of "2 or fewer" broadband providers. The National Broadband plan: "There are reasons to be concerned about wireline broadband competition in the United States."

b) extense territory and broadband is exempted from "common carrier" obbligations:

c) lobbying power of the big providers (one of them is the second most powerful lobby in Washington).

d) Most of the big companies offering global internet services are American (Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, etc.) so they have a special interest to maintain net-neutrality regulated at home and abroad.

 

The regulation in the UK: counterbalancing "best-effort" open access parameter with managed services.

Ofcom, the independent regulator and competition authority for the UK, has implemented a regulatory system that recognize the importance of both forces: the net-neutrality to protect consumers/citizens and the role of traffic management tools to make internet services efficient.
To counterbalance these two values, Ofcom has distinguished two forms of internet traffic management that have to co-exist: in primis, the internet providers shall provide their "best-efforts" internet access, in order to guarantee all traffic on more or less equal terms for everybody. Besides it, the existence of certain managed services could be implemented, in order to prioritise certain traffic according to the value they or the clients ascribe to it.
In order to maintain a fair counterbalance between this two principles, the British authority stresses the importance of:
a) recognizing explicitly that the "best-effort" access is not only important in economic terms (an "engine of innovation") but also in a socio-political perspective: "The internet is the first truly global networks, allowing us to access news, views and information from anywhere in the world. The result is increased public scrutiny, transparency and accountability."
b) protecting consumers rights: appropriate, accessible, understandable, verifiable, comparable and current information about traffic speed, specific services, different purchasing options and marketing terms used, enforcing low barriers to entry, low transaction costs, large addressable markets and near-instant access to content and services.
c) imposing a minimum quality of service standard for "best-efforts" access.
d) regulating the efficiency in competition amongst ISPS: by imposing policies on transparency, content blocking and the quality of service; by identifying potential market failures; by limiting ISPs power as gatekeepers to impose a "competitive bottleneck", and by accepting the self-regulatory model proposed by the major ISPs.

 

Net-Neutrality in the EU.

The European Parliament regulates net-neutrality as part of Data Roaming legislation.

But the European geographical contex is drastically different from the US: there is more choice of broadband providers in relatively small countries, creating strong competition enforcement that should deal with blatant discrimination.

Other factor to consider is the fewer home grown application providers: while EU is strong on kit and network operators, the most popular apps are American, but they travel through European providers, that is the reason why many European countries prefer a double-tier solution instead of an overall protection of net-neutrality. Notwithstanding this, during the last Italian EU presidency, they were working in a communitarian legislation similar as Obama's vision.

 

 

Other articles:

 

FACEBOOK IN CYBERPOLITICS

Analysis of Facebook as an actor in Cyber Politics: from Cyberpoanoptikon to Cyber Civilian Power.

Read More

battles of rights in digital era

Free Access, Privacy and Right to be Forgotten

Read More

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ss