Net neutrality has made the web what it is today. Surely we can expand it without abandoning that principle, says Sophie Curtis
The contentious issue of net neutrality has reared its head once again, after European telecommunications operators presented a report to the European Commission last week, demanding the right to charge more for certain types of content delivered over their mobile broadband networks.
The report, signed by the chief executives of Alcatel-Lucent, Deutsche Telekom and Vivendi, argues that telecoms operators should be able to develop new business models, free from any “restrictions” other than commercial agreements. This would allow mobile operators to charge certain content providers for delivering bandwidth-heavy content, such as streaming video.
The extra income can then be pumped back into network construction and innovation, the companies argue, enabling operators to provide a better service to their customers.
However, many industry commentators, including web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee, claim that such measures violate net neutrality – one of the founding principles of the Internet, created to ensure that all web traffic is treated equally.
Free and open access
Speaking at a round table event in Westminster earlier this year, Berners-Lee (pictured) said that Internet users should have free and open access to all content, and that content providers should also have unrestrained access to customers. “The web has grown so fast precisely because we have had two independent markets: one for connectivity and the other for content and applications,” he said.
Predictably, content providers such as Google are advocates of net neutrality, and have called on US regulators to create rules that ensure an open Internet and penalise “bad actors” that violate such “safeguards”. Holland recently became the first European nation to enshrine the concept of net neutrality as part of its national laws.
I myself am in favour of net neutrality, and dislike the idea of a two-tier Internet that allows content providers to pay for “first class” delivery. I fear that web throttling will enable big rich companies to dominate the networks, gaining more power and influence, while small companies struggle to compete.
However, operators are under increasing pressure to improve broadband speeds and accessibility across the continent, and the need for serious capital investment to achieve this is undeniable. Randy Fuller, director of strategic marketing officer at Tekelec, points out that clinging doggedly to the principle of net neutrality could lead to the degradation of the very service that the EU is striving to open up.
“In the long-term net neutrality would preclude the introduction of new, and innovative, services that would serve to improve the subscriber experience, generate investment for network construction and benefit customers, content providers and operators,” he said.
I can’t help thinking this is a lazy argument. Yes, investment is required for the development of broadband networks, but does that really mean we have to sacrifice our principles? Charging content providers for fast-lane access seems to me like a desperately unimaginative way to raise capital.
Monetising the Internet
The issue faced by Internet service providers is part of the same problem that online content providers and copyright owners have been wrestling with for some time: monetising the Internet.
At the end of 2010, there were 2.08 billion web users worldwide, according to the International Telecommunications Union, and aside from a small access fee, people expect that most of what they do on the Internet will be free.
This model has been absolutely core to the growth and success of the World Wide Web. But it effectively means there is no connection between the price of what people use, and the cost to deliver it.
Attempts to monetise online content, such as Rupert Murdoch putting his newspaper titles behind paywalls, have generally been unsuccessful and resulted in plummeting readership. This is largely because the idea of paying for online content goes against most people’s understanding of what the Internet is. Content on the web should be open, connected and free, not hidden away in walled gardens.
In the same way, breaking net neutrality will damage the model that makes the Internet a success in the first place – giving open and equal access to all content. The web is one of the few places where the voice of an individual can be as strong as the voice of a multinational corporation, and that is something to be cherished.
I expect the result will be – as politicians such as Ed Vaizey are so fond of telling us – some sort of “lightly regulated” Internet, (whatever that means). Both Ofcom and the European Commission have run consultations on the issue, and both came to the conclusion that some traffic management is OK, as long as consumers are properly informed.
However, in my view there is still time for someone to come up with an alternative; a way of funding network expansion and monetising content without compromising on the fundamental principles underlying the Internet – even if that means consumers paying more. The World Wide Web is one of the greatest inventions of our time. Let’s make sure we don’t mess it up.