Net Neutrality – What, Where, When, and Why on earth doesn’t it exist is Australia?

Net Neutrality is more than just something to preserve internet speed and access, it is regulation to keep innovation, equality, free speech, and basic human rights alive in the internet landscape.

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Net Neutrality is the principle whereby all electronic communication and content should be treated in a non-discriminatory manner regardless of its type, content origin or destination (Belli and Primavera, 2013). This concept grants all internet users universal access to legitimate online resources an allow them the right to universally distribute their own resources and content (Belli and Primavera, 2013). This short video offers a simple analogy to visualise and the explain the concept.

Video explainer on Net Neutrality by BBC News.

Although the conception of Net Neutrality dates back to 2003, it was not until 2015 when Europe and the US employed NN regulations. Although the US has repealed these regulations under the Trump administration, Australia is yet to implement its own regulation.  Net Neutrality would be immensely beneficial regulation and should be applied to the Australian context sooner rather than later.

Some Context…

In 2003, a law professor named Tim Wu from Columbia University,  first established the phrase Net Neutrality in response to broadband providers in the US blocking end users from accessing certain online content. Even seventeen years ago concern was raised over the implications of network discrimination by ISP’s and how it would conflict with public interest to a big enough degree that legislation should be implemented. Wu called for a set of anti-discrimination policies to be put into place in the digital world to ensure future innovation would not be hindered.

The Bush administration in the US took this concern into consideration and developed policy to prohibit ISP’s from blocking legal content in the US, which the Obama administration further refined. It wasn’t until 2014 when the internet was considered a common carrier, which are businesses or services that are critical for the functioning of the economy that are legally obliged equally accessible to everyone. Once the Trump administration came to power, they unfortunately repealed the common carrier status the internet had gained which also impacted the policies Obama put in place.

Moving across the pacific, Europe’s laws on Net Neutrality passed in mid-2015 which prohibited ISP’s from blocking or slowing down internet traffic bar a few exceptions  with the main goal of ensuring big companies on the internet wouldn’t abuse the balance of power they had (Wyszyński, 2017). With the numbers of internet users closing in on 5 billion, Net Neutrality has never been more important in the digital landscape as the internet is central to communication, enhances the democratic process, is critical in access to information and allows for self-expression and freedom of speech (Wyszyński, 2017).

According to Angela Daly, the Australian internet landscape aligns closer to the European market than the US, however our media landscape is monopolised by Murdoch media, as it controls over 50% of the Australian Media (Daly, 2016).  To preserve the benefits the internet has afforded users, it is incredibly important for Australia to develop regulation to keep the internet open, accessible and equal.

So the question on your lips may be; how exactly can it benefit the Australian internet environment if we have gone so long without it?
Well here’s how:

To ensure the fulfillment of our basic human rights…

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human rights states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” . Hence if certain services or content online that are a means of communication are blocked or discriminated against by ISP’s, ones freedom of speech and rights of expression become endangered (Wyszyński, 2017). This then becomes violation of our human rights as stated by the United Nations.

To ensure end-users right to privacy and data protection…

The design principle of the internet from its conception was end to end connection which safeguarded the information packets moving through the internet from network interference. In this manner all information was treated equally. Deep packet inspection evaluates the content of information packets on the internet in real time and figure out where it came from. The introduction of this practice basically meant that any type of content on the internet can be picked out or disturbed by ISP’s. The ability to discriminate between online traffic has the ability to impinge upon the confidentiality of online communication, an obvious privacy breach (de Filippi & Belli, 2013).


Image: atelier-data-privacy by DJANDYW.COM. All rights reserved.

To safeguard a democratic society…

The use of deep packet inspections can also be used to filter content as a means of censorship by authoritarian regimes, for example it is employed by the Chinese government on content which is critical of the government and communist policy. This example of the use of deep packet inspections on a large scale shows its threat to democracy at a worrying level.
By that same token, online activism is a very important tool for democracy. People access a lot of information online whilst simultaneously being able to share it. Freepress.com noted that the open internet allowed people of colour to tell their stories and advocate for racial and social justice (Rimmer, 2017). An example is the #BLM movement which gained more traction than ever this year. In the absence of physical unity due to COVID-19, social media enables collective action.


Image: Black Lives Matter. By seikoesquepayne. Some Rights Reserved.

Additionally, Common Carrier status was a win for Net Neutrality discourse through the Battle for the Net coalition’s use of a populist logic in mobilising internet users against the greed and corruption of ISP companies. This is a good example of why Net Neutrality is so important, it offers activists an efficient means of distributing their messages to a wide audience (Pickard and Berman, 2019).

To keep innovation and equality alive on the internet…

Without Net Neutrality, companies with viable finances can impede upon their competition to a greater degree. This would render smaller companies and start-ups obsolete and foster larger companies monopolising certain internet services even more. Innovation in the industry would take a severe hit as equality in access to services would not exist. Angela Daly mentions that an academic stakeholder has stated that broadband services in Australia should operate neutrally for the internet to flourish (Daly, 2016).

But there is little evidence of corrupt behaviour in the Australian Internet Landscape.

According to the ACCC, the Australian internet landscape doesn’t encounter much collusion or corruption by ISP’s to inappropriately block access to internet content. Yet it is not guaranteed that that will remain the case in an increasingly internet driven media landscape, so why wait for it to become an issue?

The ACCC has recently implemented a draft mandatory code aimed at addressing the power imbalances between Australian news businesses. This set out rules in negotiating between digital platforms and news businesses including fair payment for news content coming after an ACCC report on digital platforms inquiry highlighting a bargaining power imbalance between Australian New businesses and Google and Facebook. The recommendation for this industry code of conduct could thus be a wakeup call for the Australian Government, as the need for Net Neutrality will only continue escalate as the ACCC may start to notice unethical activity by ISP’s in the Australian internet landscape.

So what do you think? Should we wait for the issue of inequality on the internet to prevail in Austrlia? Or should we take it seriously now?

References:

All you need to know about Net Neutrality rules in the EU. Berec.europa.eu. (2020). Retrieved 27 October 2020, from https://berec.europa.eu/eng/netneutrality/introduction/.

Australian news media to negotiate payment with major digital platforms. Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. (2020). Retrieved 27 October 2020, from https://www.accc.gov.au/media-release/australian-news-media-to-negotiate-payment-with-major-digital-platforms#:~:text=Australian%20news%20media%20to%20negotiate%20payment%20with%20major%20digital%20platforms,-31%20July%202020&text=Australian%20media%20will%20be%20able,the%20ACCC%20today%20is%20adopted.

Bhatti, S. (2020). Net neutrality may be dead in the US, but Europe is still strongly committed to open internet access. The Conversation. Retrieved 28 October 2020, from https://theconversation.com/net-neutrality-may-be-dead-in-the-us-but-europe-is-still-strongly-committed-to-open-internet-access-89521.

Brook, C. (2020). What is Deep Packet Inspection? How It Works, Use Cases for DPI, and More. Digital Guardian. Retrieved 27 October 2020, from https://digitalguardian.com/blog/what-deep-packet-inspection-how-it-works-use-cases-dpi-and-more.

Cole, A. (2020). Black Lives Matter: decentralised leadership and the problems of online organising. The Conversation. Retrieved 29 October 2020, from https://theconversation.com/black-lives-matter-decentralised-leadership-and-the-problems-of-online-organising-140897.

Daly, A. (2016). Net neutrality in Australia: The debate continues, but no policy In sight. In Net Neutrality Compendium (pp. 141-155). Springer, Cham.

De Filippi, P., & Belli, L. (2013). Framing the Network Neutrality debate: a multi-stakeholder approach towards a policy blue-print.

Ellis, W. (2020). What is Net Neutrality and How Will it Change Things?. Privacyaustralia.net. Retrieved 23 October 2020, from https://privacyaustralia.net/history-net-neutrality/.

Finley, K. (2020). Net Neutrality: Here’s Everything You Need To Know. Wired. Retrieved 19 October 2020, from https://www.wired.com/story/guide-net-neutrality/.

Hoffman, C. (2020). How the “Great Firewall of China” Works to Censor China’s Internet. How-To Geek. Retrieved 27 October 2020, from https://www.howtogeek.com/162092/htg-explains-how-the-great-firewall-of-china-works/.

Pickard, V., & Berman, D. E. (2019). The Making of a Movement. In After Net Neutrality: A New Deal for the Digital Age (pp. 69–101). Yale University Press.

Rimmer, M. (2017, Sep). It’s Time We Had a Conversation About Net Neutrality. Australasian Science, 38, 39. http://ezproxy.library.usyd.edu.au/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.ezproxy2.library.usyd.edu.au/docview/1930773233?accountid=14757

Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Un.org. (2020). Retrieved 27 October 2020, from https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/.

World Internet Users Statistics and 2020 World Population Stats. Internetworldstats.com. (2020). Retrieved 27 October 2020, from https://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm.

Wyszyński, J. (2017). Network Neutrality: Potential impact on free speech and the right to information. Środkowoeuropejskie Studia Polityczne, (4), 119-129.

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About Alexia Cheaib 4 Articles
Science/Arts student majoring in Psychology and Art History at the University of Sydney.