The Internet is wonderful. In addition to all of the commercial opportunities it affords, it enables unprecedented opportunities for communication.
But the Internet is also a playground for terrorists and psychopaths. In a matter of minutes, terrorists can announce that they have taken a journalist hostage and then upload a video of his execution. To be sure, such behavior should be condemned, but the fact remains that the Internet allows terrorists visibility and impact that they didn’t have before.
The Internet is a force - and its networked power grows
The Internet is a double-edged sword, beautiful on one side but scary on the other. Many governments and politicians recognize the power of the Internet and how it can be used to topple totalitarian regimes but also to challenge democracies. A number countries have adopted restrictions on what citizens can do on the Internet. In many places governments decide which content and services can be accessed.
It's easy to point to countries such as China and North Korea when talking about these limitations. But people also talk about limitations when creating an app for the iPhone. Apple determines the conditions under which apps can be installed. Using Apple’s devices require that one adhere to its rules.
Similarly, Facebook has rules about what can be published on its network, and Facebook can remove content at any time and for any reason, regardless of what the user says. When one follows family and friends on Facebook, one joins the 1.2 billion users who also accept Facebook’s rules.
But Facebook is not a perfect community. Facebook reflects the myriad aspects of society including not only one’s family and friends but terrorists and psychopaths. The 22-year-old man who killed two innocent people and wounded 5 police officers in Copenhagen was active on Facebook and shared a jihadist video less than hour before his killing spree. Put simply Mark Zuckerberg is the leader of a parallel society where Facebook defines the rules, but its a world where political leaders have less control.
There is no doubt that politicians are aware of the contradictions between the online and offline world. As such, many leaders want to monitor and regulate the traffic on the network.
Governments will use net neutrality to legitimize increased control of the Internet
Dozens of governments around the world promote net neutrality rules under the slogan that it is the way to create a free and open Internet. They claim that increasing government control can ensure more freedom. Most of the time these rules are drafted and implemented without investigating whether there is even a problem. Indeed almost all OECD countries have a standard process to conduct a regulatory impact assessment (RIA) for even the most mundane of regulations. These steps include defining the problem, collecting evidence, suggesting alternatives, and weighing the costs and benefits of various options. While the EU has performed some aspects of this due diligence, no government has completed this basic assessment before imposing net neutrality rules.
In the US, the FCC will vote on its rules on February 26. What was supposed to be simple charter to prohibit blocking and throttling has turned into a gargantuan proposal that regulates business models and network interconnection. The 332 page document, which is reported to be a fiat from the White House, will not be released to the public. Five commissioners appointed by the President will vote on the rules. It is ironic that the rules to promote transparency are not in themselves transparent.
Revelations from Edward Snowden showed how the NSA monitors networks, governments and people. It put the Obama administration in a difficult position to justify surveillance. Net neutrality rules offer a convenient way to deflect attention from his administration and the NSA and place it on the telecom industry. Meanwhile by implementing utility regulation on the Internet, the US government can legitimize control. That a few civil society organizations (funded by the world’s richest foundations) support the move, so much the better.
In practice, some governments claim that telecom providers will limit freedom on the Internet, and therefore the telecom industry must be regulated. It’s one of the wildest conspiracy theories, especially when one considers that people everywhere are consuming are more data than ever. This conspiracy theory suggests that the telecom industry has a financial interest to prevent a free world. It’s the opposite of the economics that show that telecom industry has a financial incentive to maximize users, content, and services.
In any event, people are being tricked into thinking that they get a free and open internet with these rules. Such rules don’t offer any protections from government censorship. Moreover they don’t address any activities where Apple, Facebook, Google and others could act in way to limit the freedom of users.
To get a glimpse of the future of the Internet, look at airports
There is no doubt that the telecom industry builds and operates the communications networks that governments would love to control. Private companies build and operate airports, but they are subject to governmental rules as to who who can enter and exit. It’s not hard to predict that as these net neutrality rules are imposed, the Internet experience will turn into something like an airport where users need passports to prove their identity, governments monitor the planes and passengers that come and go, and authorities place restrictions on what kind of traffic can use the airport.
The telecom industry is not politically or financially motivated to harm its users. It is an industry interested to make long-term investments. If anything the telecom industry wants political stability and to avoid political power struggles. All too often regulation of networks is abused by politicians to monitor opponents and control the public’s information.
Operators have the challenge in that they must get permission to operate from the government through licenses. Governments have the interest to make licenses rare and expensive to limit the number of operators, thereby increasing their revenue. Moreover governments can use their power to demand that operators provide information on their users.
A number of operators publish transparency reports in which they disclose the information that governments demand about their users and networks. Some of these requests are legal and necessary, for example as part of criminal investigations. However many requests enter into a gray area and could be constituted as surveillance.
Operators around the world should consider cooperating on a global report about the way that government actors abuse private networks to spy on their political opponents. This research note describes the situation further. It begs the question of whom should be feared: telecom operators or governments.
There is no easy solution but let's not fool ourselves that net neutrality will make it better
We live in a complex world. Just as the Internet offers many wonderful things, it also empowers terrorists and psychopaths who want to limit those human activities. It presents a dilemma in how to ensure safety while at the same time ensuring freedom of speech. At a time when people feel threatened by terrorism, it is an all too easy to deploy a campaign to make the Internet open and free as subterfuge for increased government control. It’s the sugar on a bitter pill. Read the research note.
Regulators and politicians should be clear about what they are doing. If there are to be net neutrality rules, citizens should demand that they are implemented with transparency and the basic process of a regulatory impact assessment. Industry should insist that the regulator present the evidence to justify such rules and to conduct a hearing where operators have the chance to comment on the alleged violations.
Moreover we should consider that there are many ways to ensure an open Internet, whether through parliamentary legislation, competition law, or multi-stakeholder model. What the US is contemplating now is the most inappropriate method and threatens to consume the entire Internet ecosystem under utility rules.
Strand Consult has spent significant time and resources to to understand the net neutrality debate in various countries. The valuable knowledge is gathered in Understanding Net Neutrality and Stakeholders' Arguments This report will ensure that Strand Consult’s customers are prepared to engage in this high stakes debate. To purchase this invaluable report and participate in a workshop with Strand Consult, contact Strand Consult