On Thursday, March 31st, Netopia the forum for the Digital Society invited to a conference called “Citizen’s Internet. The Many Threats to Neutrality”. The conference, hold at the European Economic and Social Committee, saw the presentation of the report “Citizen’s Internet. The Many Threats to Neutrality” by Ralf Grötker, followed by a panel discussion involving Peter Eberl, member of the European Commission, Marc Tarabella, MEP S&D Group, Eric Pigal of the European Economic and Social Committee, Andrea Renda, CEPS and Ralf Grötker.
After a short introductory part, hold by Per Strömbäch editor and founder of Netopia, introducing the audience to the conference, Peter Eberl was asked to make the point concerning the Digital Issue, the Single Digital Market and it’s connected neutrality provision.
Peter Eberl: The European Commission already started to work towards a Single Digital market in their last legislation with the telecoms single market, including the neutrality provision on December 2013. The neutrality provision was included as an issue of freedom expression for the distribution of content and information, as an issue concerning the economical freedom of European S&M enterprises to allow them better distribute their products. Moreover the Commission’s proposal included the aim of no discrimination on the Internet, the openness for innovation and the enforcement of national regulating authorities.
‘Where are we today?’
The European Parliament voted the first resolution April 2014, the European Commission made it March of this year, the try box instead started last week and more discussions between the legislators are to come.
‘How can we have a functioning digital society?’
Per Strömbäch: Usually when speaking about the ways technology impacts our society we’re making assumptions. There is already an assumption when we say: ‘technology first, consequences later’. There’s a growing need to look into the topic of Net Neutrality without making any assumptions. If we look on the objectives, rather than the consequences, there is room for a broader discussion. There is an expectation about Net Neutrality that the infrastructure can be independent, but what the reality shows us is nothing more than a channel of convergence with services merging into contents, the centralisation of the big companies and their fragmentations with local networks.
Ralf Grötker: presented his the report: ‘The Citizen’s Internet. The many threats to neutrality’ providing the main perspectives about the issue of Net Neutrality.
There are three highlights to show the issues:
-. Convergence: It mostly concerns the intake dimension of the public sphere.
Whereas in the past it was easy to draw a line between public service broadcasting and privately run radio and TV programs and publishing companies, now the line is becoming undisguisable. Media convergence of this kind poses a problem for media funding practices of many national governments, increasing the difficulty to maintain that publicly funded media production is not a violation of competition law.
An objective will be to have a public service social network, which should be state funded.
-. Fighting Fragmentation: Usually there are strict regulations concerning most of our life spheres (e.g. building a house). Concerning the Internet instead, there is no legal framework to put limits to the kind of contracts concerning Internet and social networks. The mobile phone companies have prioritized Facebook in this scenario, leading to a monopoly.
The question is: Should we have a framework for property in the digital market?
-. Open Access: The openness is all value, is comes along with regulations, forcing big players to adapt. The most important challenge: online tools and services used for public communication should be regarded as public infrastructure.
The five-design dimension method is a starting point that helps to formulate critical questions in regard to net neutrality and other policy issues. We distinguish:
-. Policy measures: Defining the necessary kind of universality or non-discrimination in order to secure net neutrality isn’t a simple task.
-. Open Access (net neutrality; communal broadband, fighting fragmentation…)
-. Filtering for Accreditation:
–Privacy: Setting rules for content-management by content services (such as search engines or social networks), to limit what we want them to do.
–Data Portability: Equally data portability is necessary to protect the privacy and integrity of communication but as nowadays most of the social media do not offer it.
–Filtering/Prioritization: prioritization of content, price issues, and the technical possibility that content is put online not forever.
-. New strategies for media policy and Public service broadcasting: allowing first of all, public broadcast services to compete with the private sector.
-. Independence from Government control, shaping new rules for the use of big data. How can we shape or go and check international law in order to oblige international users to follow the rules?
In many of the issues reported so far, there are some questions and problems of more general scope:
-. Shaping international law: the establishment of a legal framework for binding rules within an international market where the EU should be a key driver to put forwards new standards in international business law.
-. The Market is not enough: Reference to the competition on the market often neglects some particular features of the networked public sphere, the network economy and the power of opinion.
-. Institutionalized monitoring and Coordination: Policy issues relating to the public sphere are highly interconnected in terms of practicality but rather disconnected in terms of legal and technological handling. The coordination of efforts to secure the well-functioning of the network public sphere would be highly recommended.
The report is stimulating, also a bit provocative but the subtitle of the book does not give justice to its title, as the term ‘Neutrality’ has been extremely polarized during the last years at the European level.
Concerning the issue neutrality: we have been talking of the Internet as a fantastic means of communication, because it uses open standards and because since the beginning it has been unregulated for many time (especially in the US).
Since it’s early years, the Internet empowered the exchange of information, but concerning legal terms both, the US and the EU, since the beginning tended to deny responsibility for the Internet because it was seen as a ‘neutral’ thing.
As the whole world is going digital, the Digital Society is becoming the new society and the Digital Agenda is becoming the new Agenda.
That’s one of the reasons for the emerging of new threats, mainly because Internet is gradually keeping up well-established businesses but with fewer regulations.
In my opinion this has led to a debate for more inspection of content by the public and private sector. Copyright Internet providers were transformed into a kind of Internet police, mainly because of the dispersed convergence of Internet, which likes the Internet to be much more patrolled.
In my opinion the European Commission initially underrated the threat of Net Neutrality. Now it’s becoming a huge issue but unfortunately it is interpreted in a black or withe manner.
About the example of the ‘Trabant’ car mentioned in the report (German car available in the DDR regime), the car is an example of neutrality, it’s something cheap and widespread but to obtain something different it was very hard.
‘Is this the kind of neutrality we are looking for?’
Not a good idea to the extent that the plurality of offers contribute to the richness of Internet, guaranteeing pluralism is very important but should not include neutrality. Neutrality can be understood in 2 senses:
To the extent that we can assume that specialized services will be available in the future, if we bring the speech to the next level applying more and more layers (Internet neutrality, platform neutrality etc…).
‘Why are we doing it?’
Innovation? Not a real issue, as there is no proof if neutrality is better than diversity for innovation. Stating that innovation is favoured by neutrality needs more reflection on the topic.
‘Where is neutrality raised as a stronger concept?’
In the pluralism but it is useless, as using neutrality to exchange pluralism is not likely to have those positive outcomes. You can try to have a neutral search engine with neutral criteria; nevertheless the attention of the users will be focused on the most popular sites.
In my opinion the real debate we face now is how do we stop Internet monopolies, or how do we assure that the content on the Internet is addressed by policies? There is a growing need to have the media policy back on track!
The Net Neutrality should guarantee to users and consumers fair Internet access as the access to water or electricity, considered as a public service.
There are still huge differences between Europe and the US, where Internet is considered as a public service.
‘Why is it still like this?’
Mainly because of some national governments and lobbies that continue to block the establishment of equal policies for consumers. Some European governments as Germany or France are proposing an offer, which would be quite similar to the policies of the UK, where the user is forced to pay in addition to his monthly subscription more money for the contents provided on the Net. To put it simple, some major groups can afford access to priority lanes on the Net, while others not, a serious infringement to the principle of non-discrimination.
It’s mainly up to national government’s, which made the choice of holding up operators rather than citizens, making the operator’s interests rather than defending the interests of the citizens.
We register the same situation regarding the roaming issue, initially announced to be applied by December 2015, but finally resulting postponed by 2018 because of the lobbies influence.
Moral of the story, we have in both cases examples where national governments rather than citizens.
‘In your view with Internet access being a public utility how can we/should we pay for this service? Is it to consider as water consumption or roads?’
Universal access for sure it’s a costly to realize but the advertising may be the solution, not the only one but a good starting point.
Some very interesting findings in the report, I’m a bit more reluctant concerning the issue of filtering websites, having state interventions. I’m reluctant because it should be up to users to choose where to go, stay or leave on the Internet, exactly as they can do on newspapers or TV channels.
Andrea mentioned the preconditions for neutrality and diversity: ensuring neutrality of treatment of all kind of services is a pre condition for diversity.
On my opinion the ‘Trabat example’ instead is not right, because network operators are offering more than one service. Offerin3g more than one service, the price changes, but Mr Eberl sees it as a fair thing to pay by volume and internet speed, given condition that also with the smallest Internet access you are able to access all the web.
‘There seems to be some friction between neutrality and specialized services, is it really clear what the definition of a specialized service is?’
The European Commission proposed a definition, the Parliament amended it but the Council preferred to not amend a definition.
‘Why are we still talking about Internet neutrality?’
We do have Internet neutrality, in a way that we can be whoever we are or want to be on the Internet. One can be whoever and get an account, except that this is their neutrality (their of the big actors who provide us services for free).
The problem may be that we are claiming for neutrality on the Net but as most of the services we’re using are for free we have no rights to ask for it.
‘How can we ask for something if we have no rights?’
Most of the people forget that whenever we don’t pay something, somebody is paying it for us, expecting of course o counter part. This counter part, concerning the Net can be seen as ourselves, our Data.
Nowadays the Net is made up of enterprises whose whole business model is based on the fact that there is neutral access to Internet. If we regulate the Internet too much the consequences for these big player are huge.
‘Is there a solution?’
I don’t think that warranting anonymity on the Net is that important threat. Internet users should be as responsible on the Net as they are in real life, if not, in the case of committing illegal activities, they should be conscious of the consequences.
Concerning governments, Internet is globally expanded with global effects, but no global regulamentation. ‘Is or would it be possible to have a worldwide governance?’
I personally don’t believe it, there is no political worldwide entity. Who can be in charge of this worldwide governance without a worldwide political entity?
Decades passed since we’re trying to have it, decades will pass to reach the goal. As there is no political worldwide identity to govern the Internet, and creating one is such difficult, why don’t we promote the use of local Internet? Regulating local networks would be quiet simpler, with own European, American, Asian regulations.
To know more:
-. Neutralité du Net: Opérateurs et utilisateurs veulent des règles conviviales au moment ou moment où les Etats-Unis consacrent le principe de la Neutralité du Net: