March 12, 2014 marked the 25th birthday of the internet. If you were fortunate enough to miss its pre-teenage years of dial-up, you may well fail to appreciate how the up-shift in speed and continuous availability of the internet has changed how we all communicate, interact and exchange multi-media on demand.
As Europe continues to get increasingly connected, the importance of preserving both the availability and accessibility of the internet has also grown incrementally with each new connection. For many, the principle of Net Neutrality is widely accepted as the bedrock for safe guarding the integrity of the Open Internet and mitigating the risk of discriminatory or bias restrictions by internet access service providers.
Net neutrality is a phrase coined in 2005 by Tim Wu, a professor at New York based Columbia Law School, in his paper – 'Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination'. Wu defined net neutrality as a belief system that deemed all internet driven services as equal, regardless of the data source or destination. When applied as a legislative tool, net neutrality requires internet service providers (ISP) and telecom operators to treat all data exchanged across their networks the same, that is, without discrimination, biasness or favouritism.
By its very definition, the principle of net neutrality is mutually exclusive to that of data traffic management. To therefore realistically pursue and achieve net neutrality without data traffic management, the infrastructure supporting the internet must have bandwidth capacity greater or equal to bandwidth demand at all times.
As internet access service providers privately own this infrastructure, it is my view that the level of investment required to achieve and sustain net neutrality renders the principle impractical in the modern context. As a result, we are seeing in legislation is a fork from the net neutrality principle to accommodate economic realities.
It is important to note that when Wu researched and published his paper, the digital landscape was vastly different from where we are now and where we could be in the next 25 years. Latency sensitive services such as YouTube and Netflix, which both currently account for 50% of the peak internet traffic in the US, were still in their early infancy. While the first iPhone - which heralded the data consuming app revolution on mobiles and tablets, was more than two years away from worldwide release.
With more data intensive devices connecting to the internet, policy makers have the unenviable task of competing with other nations to attract telecom investment to their national infrastructure. While at the same time implementing regulatory action against the very same service providers in an effort to protect the integrity of the internet.
For the most part, navigating such diplomacy has been relatively straightforward, as the commercial interests of ISP's have been generally aligned with that of the public. This is why only four out of the 28 EU member states have adopted net neutrality into legislation thus far.
The first EU nation to adopt net neutrality (second only to Chile in the world) was the Netherlands in June 2011. The policy was put forth by the Dutch national telecom regulator – OPTA, in response to the nations telecom market leader KPN charging the public for using third-party voice/text applications on their mobile network.
It is reported that KPN's text messaging revenue declined by 13% during the first quarter of 2011, as 85% of their customers downloaded WhatsApp – an internet messaging app for mobile handsets that competes directly with SMS. The public protested the additional charges and it took only two months before a law was enacted that prohibited operators from blocking, throttling or charging extra fees for third-party services.
The legislative tone set by the Netherlands was soon followed by Belgium, Slovenia and Luxembourg. The EU also joined the conversation, with the rhetoric from Brussels advocating a standardsed European regulatory framework instead of the nationalistic reforms by its member states.
On March 18, 2014, the EU took one step closer to reaching their regulatory goal when Members of the Parliamentary Committee of Industry Research and Energy voted in a Telecom Package. Outlined in Article 23 of the package, is a policy loosely based on net neutrality and prohibits ISP's from purposely throttling, blocking or discriminating any internet services running on their network.
What appears to be a legislative win for net neutrality proponents is later negated by a provision that enables ISPs to manage data traffic on their network. Moreover, the reform also empowers ISPs with the ability to prioritise internet data packets when offering specialised services based on private commercial agreements with other services or content providers.
Although such specialised services are restricted from impairing the general quality of the internet, the jury is still out on whether the new legislation can be considered abandonment of the net neutrality principle or merely a new fork.
If not approved by the European Parliament in the April vote, the EU finds itself in a challenging position where the internet service providers will continue to self-regulate across 24 of its member states. While self-regulation has not been an issue thus far, the decreasing competition in Europe's consolidating telecom sector does not bode well for net neutrality. Last year, the European telecom sector announced nearly €94 billion worth of M&A activity – the most since 2005.
However, if the legislation is approved I will be among those commending the EU for committing to the Open Internet, while also safeguarding the future accessibility of the web by incentivising telecoms to invest in the infrastructure. This will in turn result in technological innovation, encourage start-ups and ensure the necessary network required to support the internet for the next 25 years and beyond.