Net neutrality: The freedom to get (free) access to freedom

Image: The State of Net Neutrality, by Greg Landgraf. All rights reserved.

To imagine that you are travelling from Sydney to New Castle. Right before you get onto M1, an officer showed up and asked whether you have purchased a “highway entry” plan or whether you are driving a certain manufacture’s vehicle model. “Why? No, I didn’t.” “So, then you have to be kept on the slow lane.” Slowly moving among all those poor cars on the narrow slow lane, you feel frustrated and bored, so you turned on the radio and started to enjoy some beautiful music. Three minutes later, “dear basic plan user,” some voice from the radio saying, “you have reached the limit for you package, please enjoy the next 30 minutes of advertisement, thank you.”

A nightmare. But it might be the real life without net neutrality (NN) regulatory.

 

The history and the present of Net Neutrality

Net neutrality (NN), by its simplest meaning, is that all internet information should be able to be accessed equally, and your Internet Service Provider (ISP) should not be able to improperly discriminate different sourced information by slowing down your visits to them or charging you more for certain sites or services (Krämer, J., Wiewiorra, L., & Weinhardt, C., 2013). Just like the scenario I described in the beginning, if such a content “censorship” is allowed to be guaranteed to internet service providers, the access to different sources of information will be no longer equal (and soon will be no longer free).

Explaining Net Neutrality
Image by Jim Cossler. All rights reserved.

Different countries and areas in today’s world hold different stances and situations regarding to net neutrality regulations. United States is one of the most active “battlefield” around this issue, especially with the current Trump administration overturning net neutrality rules in 2018, which was widely viewed as a result of big internet service provider companies’ lobbyists efforts (Bass, 2017). In Europe, the net neutrality regulations are going to be enshrined to the level of legislation though the outcomes are not yet predictable, while in Brazil, the legalization of net neutrality regulatory is in process since the Brazilian National Congress recently adopted related bills (Diplo Foundation, 2014).

Taking the most complicated and multi-sides involved example of the United States, we can see that the establishment of net neutrality rules is not through a flat road, not to mention the legalization of net neutrality. Interestingly, though the underlying idea of protecting the equal access to internet information behind the anti-discrimination claims of net neutrality rules is definitely an idea rooted deeply in democratic politics with a long history, the debate over the right of internet service providers restricting the access and usage of certain information is quite near. In 2003, Columbia University Law professor Tim Wu brought up the term of “network neutrality” due to the concern about some broadband providers prohibiting users from using virtual private networks (VPNs), and called for anti-discrimination rules (Finley, 2020). During Bush and Obama administrations, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has been spending years in enforcing rules to protect net neutrality. However, big companies such as AT&T, comcast, and other broadband providers have also been putting great efforts in overturning net neutrality protection rules. In 2017, the Trump-era FCC eventually successfully voted to remote the restrictions of service providers on blocking or throttling content, following by the continuous efforts by industry companies trying to overturn a 2015 FCC rule which classified them as common carriers under Title II of the Communication Act and thus put more obligations on them (Finley, 2020). Will the situation change again along with the change of political situation and industry circumstance? It is hard to say. But what can we learn from this short but interesting history, especially considering the case of Australia?

 

Embracing Net Neutrality in Australia

Mostly as internet service users, we can easily take the position of supporters of net neutrality. However, there are more important reasons we should embrace net neutrality in Australia. I will take two perspective to further discuss the reasons: one from the industry perspective, and one from the individual development and social well-being perspective.

To protect innovation and creation

The invention and development of internet, as well as its widely usage all over the world, is not only a technology revolution, but also an economy revolution. The invention and application of a great tool is definitely a powerful boost for productivity and thus for the economy, but the ubiquitous and open nature of the internet makes it the incubator of hundreds and thousands of new tools and technologies, which is the most powerful and valuable meaning of open internet (Barua, A., Whinston, A. B., & Yin, F., 2000).

Technology innovations are always Australia’s orientation in both economics development and building a better society for everybody. In a report named “Delivering a strong, safe and inclusive digital economy” (2018) by the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources of Australia, we can see that the importance of flexible and efficient regulations is emphasized with an entire chapter. Protecting net neutrality is protecting the openness of the internet, which is both the nature and the key point of its importance and success, and thus promoting creations and competitions supported by the equally accessible and rich information (Hahn, R. W., & Wallsten, 2006).

To protect equality and fair share of economics and technology development

Around the net neutrality issue, it has seemed to be a hot mess involving big companies, authority institutes, interest-related organizations, lobbyists, government, and courts. However, the real “users”, the citizens of the open, free internet, should have more attentions and considerations. As Barlow (1996) addressed in his article, the cyberspace is the home of mind, the space of individuals, not governments and business giants. More importantly, prior studies have shown that equal access to broadband is important in reducing income inequality and social inequality due to unequal share of social economics development (Houngbonon, G. V., & Liang, J., 2017; Townsend, L., Sathiaseelan, A., Fairhurst, G., & Wallace, C., 2013), while higher inequality in information accessibility can contribute to wider income gap and more social difficulties for individuals along with more social problems for the society (DiMaggio, P., Hargittai, E., Celeste, C., & Shafer, S., 2004).

Taking the economy and social development of individuals into consideration, promoting net neutrality rules and protecting the equal accessibility to informational are very important to help people, especially those who are from disadvantaged socio-economy background, to gain their own information network which might not be within reach in their personal circumstance, and then help them to overcome the difficulties in their life.

 

Conclusion: Before the freeway is no longer free

Reviewing the history, especially the long time legal and regulatory battles around the issue of net neutrality in the United States, we can see that a very simple and even idealism idea can invoke great interest-involved disputes. By restricting the potential restriction of access and usage of users of certain content by the internet service providers, we are actually protecting the open space for creation and innovation, but also building up a more helpful and less restrained environment for everyone in today’s digital society. With the recent political changes in the United States, the future of net neutrality rules is still full of uncertainty. However, Australia can still do more for each individual, and for the more creative and more active society.

 

References:

Barlow, J. P. (1996) A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. Electronic Frontier Foundation. Electronic Frontier Foundation

Barua, A., Whinston, A. B., & Yin, F. (2000). Value and productivity in the Internet economy. Computer33(5), 102-105.

Bass, F. (2017, December 13th.). Amid Net Neutrality Debate, Biggest ISPs Spent At Least $26.3 Million On Lobbying. Retrieved from: https://www.fastcompany.com/40507541/amid-net-neutrality-debate-biggest-isps-spent-at-least-26-3-million-on-lobbying

Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources of Australia, (December, 2018). Delivering a strong, safe and inclusive digital economy”. Retrieved from https://www.industry.gov.au/data-and-publications/australias-tech-future

DiMaggio, P., Hargittai, E., Celeste, C., & Shafer, S. (2004). Digital inequality: From unequal access to differentiated use. In Social inequality (pp. 355-400). Russell Sage Foundation.

Diplo Foundation (2014). Net Neutrality in Focus. Retrieved from: https://www.giplatform.org/resources/net-neutrality-focus

Finley, K. (2020, May 4th). The WIRED Guide to Net Neutrality. Retrieved from: https://www.wired.com/story/guide-net-neutrality/

Hahn, R. W., & Wallsten, S. (2006). The economics of net neutrality. The Economists’ Voice3(6).

Houngbonon, G. V., & Liang, J. (2017). Broadband Internet and Income Inequality.

Krämer, J., Wiewiorra, L., & Weinhardt, C. (2013). Net neutrality: A progress report. Telecommunications Policy37(9), 794-813.

Townsend, L., Sathiaseelan, A., Fairhurst, G., & Wallace, C. (2013). Enhanced broadband access as a solution to the social and economic problems of the rural digital divide. Local Economy28(6), 580-595.