What is net neutrality?
Net neutrality (aka the open internet) is the principle that no one internet user should be given preferential treatment over any other internet user. From a finite bandwidth resource, if one user gets more, another user must necessarily get less. Net neutrality holds that this is discrimination that must not be allowed.
The argument against net neutrality
ISPs and telecoms companies claim that the larger companies consume the greater part of the available bandwidth, and should therefore pay more for it. Companies like Netflix and BBC iPlayer account for a high proportion of internet traffic, and should therefore pay more for using the internet than the man in the street who uses the internet for browsing and commenting.
ISPs also claim the right to throttle back user speeds when needed for network management.
This, claim both EC commissioner Neelie Kroes in Europe and FCC chairman Tom Wheeler in the US can be achieved while still calling it net neutrality.
The argument in favour of net neutrality
Supporters of genuine net neutrality claim that if the large, rich companies can buy better internet service, they will do so to the detriment of smaller and start-up companies not able to afford the faster speeds. If everybody were to pay higher prices, then nothing would change. The implication is that supply and demand will force prices to continually increase until some companies can afford a better service than others.
This will lead to an increase in the profits of the ISPs and telecoms suppliers without having to improve the overall service they provide. This will in turn be a disincentive for investing in future broadband improvements. Furthermore, the increased costs to the big companies will be passed on to the users, who will therefore have to pay more for online services. Smaller companies will simply be squeezed out of the internet, unable to afford good broadband service, and unable to compete with the large established companies. This will make the rich richer and the poor poorer.
Current status in Europe
Neelie Kroes tried to redefine net neutrality to allow (according to the European Digital Rights Group) telecommunications providers to monitor users’ internet usage “ranging from visits of websites to the receiving of e-mails;” and even, it adds, legitimize “the slowing down of bit rates or the restriction of access to allegedly illegal services and content.” Not only is this the clear opposite of net neutrality, says EDRI, it would further be a breach of both the Human Rights Declaration and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.
Kroes introduced her version of net neutrality into the Regulation on the Single Telecoms Market; and for a while it looked as if she would get her way. But a combination of the left, liberal, green and pirate elements of the European Parliament put forward their own amendment and shot down her version in early April.
Provided that the European Council (that is, the relevant ministers from the individual member states’ governments) endorse the parliament’s vote in October, net neutrality will be guaranteed in Europe. But it’s not certain yet; and there will be huge industry lobbying between now and October.
Current state in the US
Net neutrality comes under the aegis of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Since 2010 it has enforced net neutrality in the US via its open internet rules. This, however, was challenged by Verizon; and in January of this year a federal appeals court ruled that the FCC did not have the mandate to impose its open internet rules on ISPs. The court confirmed the FCC’s mandate over telecommunications providers and effectively invited the FCC to reclassify ISPs as telecoms providers in order to maintain its open internet rules.
Many commentators expected the FCC to do just that. It has not; and meanwhile it has had a change of leadership. Julius Genachowski, who presided over the open internet, left and was replaced by Tom Wheeler, a former telecommunications company lobbyist and president of the NCTA (the ISP’s trade group). Wheeler has now announced that he intends to allow ISPs to deliver a faster service to those companies that pay more for it.
In Europe we await the vote of the European Council, probably in October. The Council usually abides by the decision of the European Parliament; but this is not a foregone conclusion. If it does, genuine net neutrality will eventually become law in Europe.
In the US, the FCC is expected to vote on Wheeler’s new proposal this coming week (15 May, 2014). There has been a huge backlash. Some of the FCC commissioners are known to be unhappy, and suggested (unsuccessfully) that he delay the vote to allow more consultation. Ten senators wrote to him with their concerns. “The time has come,” they said, “for the FCC to adopt Net Neutrality rules that provide clear, strong protections for the Open Internet and all Americans, once and for all.”
Meanwhile, public protests are growing. One group is picketing the FCC building with a ‘people’s firewall’. A mass protest is being organized. And web hosting firm NeoCities started to throttle access from FCC IP addresses to its home page (putting the relevant source code on Github) and calling for other sites to do the same.
After being a long-term supporter of net neutrality, the American Federal Communication Commission (FCC) has taken an axe to it. The current chairman Tom Wheeler is proposing to allow broadband providers to charge larger providers larger fees. This mirrors the view of Digital Agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes in Europe. Both claim that it will not negate the principles of net neutrality; and both are attempting to pull the wool over our eyes.
The generally accepted definition of net neutrality was described by the European Data Protection Supervisor Peter Hustinx in October 2011:
The concept of net neutrality builds on the view that information on the Internet should be transmitted impartially, without regard to content, destination or source, and that users should be able to decide what applications, services and hardware they want to use. This means that ISPs cannot, at their own choice, prioritise or slow down access to certain applications or services such as Peer to Peer (‘P2P’), etc.
Net neutrality: an introduction and opinion from the European Data Protection Supervisor
Wheeler and Kroes now both wish to allow providers to prioritise some traffic (on payment of a suitable fee, of course) for the larger content providers. Netflix has already agreed to pay Comcast more for a better service. But the simple math is that from a fixed pot, you cannot give more to one person without giving less to another. By prioritizing some traffic, the ISPs will necessarily penalise others.
In America the new proposals follow a court case in February that declared the old genuine net neutrality rules of the FCC to be illegal. The basic reason was that the ISPs do not fall within the FCC’s regulatory remit. The easy solution would have been for the FCC to redefine the providers as common carriers (which it could do) and bring them back under its regulatory remit. It chose not to do so. Like Kroes, Wheeler is now firmly under the sway of big business.
The effect will be twofold. Prices will rise and innovation will stall. Those providers who find it necessary to pay the broadband providers more to remain competitive will not pay out of their profit — they will increase their subscriptions so that users pay. That’s called capitalism: maximise profits and ignore the consumer.
Innovation will also stall. New fledgling companies with new services will never be able to compete with the big established companies. They will not able to afford the premium services and will be at a service disadvantage from the word go. By effectively buying up the available bandwidth, the big companies will starve the innovators.
This looks like the death of net neutrality in America under Wheeler. It’s clinging on in Europe despite Kroes. Her style of false neutrality was rejected earlier this month by the European Parliament. But that’s not the end of it. Parliament,s decision needs to be ratified by the national governments — which means that it has still got to get pass that friend of big business and scourge of the people, David Cameron.
Well the Greens, Social Democrats, Lefties and Liberals — and let’s not forget Pirate Amelia Andersdotter — did it. The Neelie Kroes version of net neutrality has been consigned to the rubbish bin, for the time being at least. Kroes can still boast a success since her overall Regulation on the Single Telecoms Market package was adopted by the European Parliament by a massive 534 votes to 25, with 58 abstentions. But the amendments included to protect the internet from Kroes buddy telecoms firms were largely accepted.
Genuine net neutrality will, all being well, become law throughout the European Union rather than limited to The Netherlands and Slovenia. The UK won’t be happy, but I long ago started to support anything that the UK government doesn’t like; because you can guarantee that will be the best option for the people.
On the basis of this vote, the telecoms companies will only be able to restrict bandwidth to fulfil a court order, protect security or temporarily manage bandwidth. They will not be able to deliver their best services to large companies who pay more for them, leaving smaller companies (and consumers) to struggle on slower services. The industry says this will stifle innovation — which seems strange when their proposals could strangle the new, small, innovative companies struggling to get started.
Like the Data Protection Regulation, which was also accepted by a huge majority earlier this year, it won’t become law until endorsed by the European Council (that is, the national governments). This vote is expected in October; and like the Data Protection Regulation, it is likely to be resisted by the UK.
All governments are more susceptible to big business lobbying than is the European Parliament (you may recall that it was the Parliament that shot down ACTA even after the European Commission and many of the national governments — including, you got it, the UK — had already signed). So between now and October there will be renewed and furious lobbying from the telecoms firms who can see the possibility of increased profits dwindling.
You can guarantee that the UK is already on their side.
Tomorrow the European Parliament will vote on whether to enshrine net neutrality in European law. It will be so enshrined, but whether it is genuine net neutrality as understood worldwide, or Neelie Kroes’ redefinition of the term to suit big telecoms business is on a knife-edge.
Kroes, the European Commission and the telecoms lobbying industry wants to define neutrality to include the right to charge more for some and bandwidth manage (that is, restrict) others. This is not ‘net neutrality’.
Ranged against this is a series of amendments designed to prevent the telecoms industry from discriminating against any section of their customers. This will abandon the Kroes’ definition and ensure the genuine thing. On paper, these amendments carry a majority — but whether everyone can remain firm and vote for the people rather than business will not be known until tomorrow.
Yesterday, four big telecommunications trade associations got together and delivered possibly the last big pressure document.
Cable Europe represents the leading European cable TV operators throughout Europe. The European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association (ETNO) represents the block’s biggest telecoms companies, like Deutsche TelekomDTE.XE +0.04%, Orange SAORA.FR +0.05%., and Telefónica, S.A. ECTA, the European Competitive Telecommunications Association, represents the smaller, newer telecoms companies that usually challenge ETNO members. And the GSM Association represents mobile.
Battle Lines Drawn Over Net Neutrality in Europe
What they demand is defeat of the amendments, which they claim will “prevent operators from efficiently managing their networks and from providing innovative services that require enhanced levels of quality, such as telemedicine or e-education.”
La Quadrature du Net explains the knife-edge:
The number of parliamentarians in the groups that tabled the amendments adds to 372 votes which almost represents an absolute majority in the 766-seat Parliament. With the support of independents and some representatives from the centre-right EPP group, these amendments can therefore pass. Unfortunately, although ALDE tabled positive amendments, it is not certain that the whole group will vote in favour. Despite recommendations by civil society organisations, for instance those of La Quadrature du Net, parliamentarians, faced with important efforts by the lobby of big telecom and even by the European Commission, might be swayed to vote against the interest of the wider citizenry and small and medium enterprises.
Only a Few Hours Left to Save the Internet!
It’s an important vote. It could maintain or destroy net neutrality in Europe. La Quadrature is calling on all Europeans to urgently contact their European parliamentarians in these last few hours. Vote for the amendments.
My news stories today:
Flaming Hack: What does ‘Flame’ mean for the rest of us?
We’ve all heard about Flame, the ‘mother of all cyberweapons’, the attack tool that takes cyberwarfare to a new level. But what does it actually mean for the rest of us?
30 May 2012
Neelie Kroes Promises champagne connection – for the wealthy
Neelie Kroes, European Commissioner for the Digital Agenda, has promised a champagne connection for those who can afford it.
30 May 2012
Assange’s appeal fails: extradition lawful – everything left to play for
By a majority of 5 to 2 (Lord Mance and Lady Hale dissented) the UK supreme court has this morning ruled that Julian Assange’s extradition to Sweden is lawful, “and his appeal against extradition is accordingly dismissed.” Assange was not present in court.
30 May 2012
My recent news stories…
Security: do as I say, not as I do
While the role of the CISO is increasingly recognized – usually reporting directly to the board and sometimes sitting on the board – the problems it faces is highlighted by a new Cryptzone survey: security policy doesn’t apply to senior management.
25 May 2012
The rightsholders’ war of attrition against the internet
Google’s Transparency Report now provides a new section on copyright, “disclosing the number of requests… to remove Google Search results because they allegedly link to infringing content.”
25 May 2012
TheWikiBoat’s OpNewSon fires today
TheWikiBoat, a new hacking group that uses techniques and tools similar to Anonymous, but for the lulz rather than the principle, plans to launch its first major operation, #OpNewSon, today.
25 May 2012
Google describes the winning hack at Pwnium
Each year the CanSecWest conference runs the pwn2own hacking contest against leading browsers: Chrome, Firefox, IE and Safari. This year Google withdrew its sponsorship and set up its own Chrome specific contest: Pwnium, an extension of the Chromium Security Rewards program.
24 May 2012
Clueful – an app to describe app behavior
Earlier this year social networking company Path was hauled over the coals by both users and Apple for automatically uploading users’ iPhone address books. This, says Apple, is “in violation of our guidelines.”
24 May 2012
FCC’s net neutrality rules may be tested by VoIP
Bad blood in a local dispute in Georgia leads to request for the FCC to proceed “with corrective action as required or as deemed necessary… to protect the national and global interest of the public and the internet application industry alike.”
24 May 2012
Long-standing secret meetings between Canadian telcos and government on C-30
Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa specializing in internet and e-commerce law, has discovered secret talks between Canadian telcos and the government on internet surveillance.
23 May 2012
McAfee Q1 Threats Report
The latest quarterly McAfee threats report shows cyber threats increasing across the board: PC, Mac, mobile malware; botnets and hacktivism are all on the rise.
23 May 2012
Monday Mail Mayhem: Anonymous dumps 1.7GB from the DoJ
Monday Mail Mayhem was this week launched by Anonymous starting with the Pirate Bay dump of a 1.7GB database stolen from the Department of Justice, and the release of the traditional Anonymous video announcement.
23 May 2012