Voices about whether net neutrality should apply to Australia are varied due to multistakeholders like Internet Services Providers (ISPs), media companies and internet users possess different interests over political, economic and social spectrum. My argument is that network neutrality should be introduced to Australia though there are limited benefits of non-neutral network, it could be regarded as a means to preserve the right of how individuals using internet, avoid ISPs exploitation on users and restriction made by near monopolistic companies.
Definition and Historical Background
Net neutrality is a principle followed by ISPs that they should treat all data equally and not discriminate judging from users’ service, software, platform or other socio-technological factor. The role of ISPs is to play as a “common carrier” of content. This term rose from “common carriage laws”, which says everyone has equal access to public roads. Historically, a non-neutral internet was not infeasible from a technical perspective in the 1990s, internet operators did not have the capacity to clarify and categorize information, until 2003, deep packet inspection was created to make real-time discrimination between different data (Roberts, 2003). In the same year, Professor Tim Wu coined the term “net neutrality”. Later in 2006, the US Senate and the House of Representatives proposed the legislation of net neutrality.
ISPs determine what information we are exposed to if net neutrality is not applied. When we are not free from acquiring knowledge, authorities might interfere and their political inclinationwill affect contents they are providing. Authorities relating to ISPs and regulators may have the chance to speed up their supported candidates’ websites and block websites of the opposing party (Reed, 2018). In fact, Net neutrality used to be a technocratic policy because it was a game of “inside-baseball” played mostly by authorities from government agencies, legislative committees and business community (Pickard & Berman p.70).
Federal communication commission (FCC) is one of them, whose responsibility is to monitor fair competition in communications. As an independent agency of the US government, ironically, its five commissioners are appointed by the president which clearly indicates that the president possesses power to influence FCC. Since the jurisdiction of FCC is to monitor and verdict adequate charges and distribution of information according to Communication act of 1934, ISPs were restrained in that condition until 2017, anopponent of net neutrality Ajit Pai, a former Verizon lawyer, was appointed to be the chairman of the FCC by Donald Trump. In accordance with Trump’s favor, the FCC repeal net neutrality, giving ISPs power to manipulate internet. The US government, regulators and operators are now sharing a common interest. Soon, net neutrality supporters introduced the Save the Internet Act to against Ajit Pai’s corrupt. This act is a vote for the future of open net, keeping lawmakers have nowhere to hide (Greer, 2019).
Net neutrality is experiencing a transition from operating within elite institutions to democratic crowd (Pickard & Berman p.72). Net neutrality plays a significant role in securing free speech and how individuals choose to use internet, additionally, it promotes democratic participation and democratizes the policymaking process, estranging the process from elite institutions (Pickard & Berman p.72). An example of this is democratic movements like Black Lives Matter(BLM) and Me Too. When this movement emerged, many content creators uploaded videos on YouTube, supporting BLM using their influences and encouraging audiences to watch advertisements. They will donate the income to BLM organizations. However, YouTube removed videos without permission and they clarified that some of influencers violated the platform’s donation policy. There were voices suggesting that YouTube’s move was an attempt to silence creators from speaking out controversial contents, in this case, racial injustice and police brutality (Retta, 2020).
ACCC: Regulatory Authority
There is a regulator in Australia, whose function is similar to the FCC, the Australia Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is created to protect consumer rights, to monitor pricing, and to prevent illegal anti-competitive behaviors. Nevertheless, ACCC is only an administration that regulates a general competition, no specific law could be used to address net neutrality issues. Comparing with the FCC, ACCC is a more neutral regulator and could do a better job on internet surveillance, because it is an independent agency, favoring neither consumer nor supplier.
Lately, a new proposal law named the News Media Bargaining Code experienced a vehement argument. This proposal aims to have large technology platforms subsidize domestic news publishers but Google and Facebook strongly protest it.
The advance of internet makes advertisers turn to giants like Google and Facebook, as a result, traditional media industry has undertaken tremendous pressure. The statistics indicate that 100 of Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper business will transform into digital versions or disappear entirely (BBC News, 2020). ACCC proposed this rule to ensure a more equitable competition, but Facebook has threatened to block users from sharing news content in Australia. Net neutrality is difficult to preserve since Australia has not established a relevant law. Furthermore, many news publishers depend heavily on Google and Facebook for traffic but have little bargaining power with them, on the other hand, original news content benefited these platforms (Ribeird, 2020). To some extent, this unfair trade is triggered by non-neutral network.
Commercial Motivation of Non-neutrality
ISPs and media companies violate net neutrality for economic reasons, particularly for the purpose of monopoly. Some ISPs allow users to launch applications without affecting bandwidth limit and there is no network speed limit either. According to Rubin Lee, who is a Professor of Economics at Harvard University, and Tim Wu, this capitalization will lead to fragmentation ultimately, where some ISPs possess exclusive content, making it more difficult to gain access (Lee & Wu, 2009). An example of fragmentation would be video streaming platforms, where TV series are brought out and audiences have to subscribe different memberships such as Netflix and HBO to watch contents they like. Making content exclusive violates net neutrality as it restricts users’ freedom to choose applications they want.
Non-net neutral conduct also exists in Australia, an example of this was seen in telecommunication industry. In 2013, Telstra announced a plan to test new means of controlling broadband and the result is, to slow down the speed for some high-bandwidth contents. The chairman of ACCC commented that if ISPs can control what comes down their pipe, they will use that technology to privilege their own content over others (Frost, 2015). Telstra is the largest telecoms in Australia, it owns telecoms infrastructure and provides internet services which mean it has notable influence on internet and contents that are delivered to us.
A pricing model called “volumetric” is applied mostly in Australia, by which end users pay ISPs for a predetermined speed and maximum download quota. If exceed this standard, an extra fee will be charged. There is an argument that non-net neutral conduct is unnecessary as the more the end-users consumer, the more they pay ISPs
However, another argument says that every ISP has the motivation in traffic shaping (Daly, 2014). Despite that, the situation in Australia is still relatively more optimistic than in the US, since users have more options for ISPs.
Promoting net neutrality in Australia could prevent ISPs from dominating discourse power on internet and protect individuals’ democratic speech, simultaneously, restricting massive companies’ misconducts on access and distribution of contents. Overall, introducing net neutrality to Australia could be beneficial.
BBC NEWS. (2020). Murdoch shuts 112 Australia print papers in major digital shift. Retrieved October 28, 2020, from https://www.bbc.com/news/business-52829347
Frost, B. (2015). Net Neutrality – Overseas Experiences and Australia. Retrieved November 01, 2020, from http://classic.austlii.edu.au/au/journals/CommsLawB/2015/7.html
Greer, E. (2019). Trump killed net neutrality. Congress is getting a chance to bring it back. Retrieved October 26, 2020, from https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/trump-killed-net-neutrality-congressional-democrats-are-trying-make-internet-ncna979786
Lee, Robin S., Wu, Tim. (2009). “Subsidizing Creativity through Network Design: Zero-Pricing and Net Neutrality”. Journal of Economic Perspectives. 23 (3): 61-76. doi:10.1257/jep.23.3.61. ISSN 0895-3309
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.
Roberts, P. (2003). NetScreen Announces Deep Inspection Firewall. Retrieved October 24, 2020, from https://www.networkworld.com/article/2337804/netscreen-announces-deep-inspection-firewall.html
Ribeiro, C. (2020). Can Australia Force Google and Facebook to Pay for News? Retrieved November 28, 2020, from https://www.wired.com/story/can-australia-force-google-facebook-pay-news/
Reed, E. (2018). What Is Net Neutrality and Why Is It Important in 2019? Retrieved October 24, 2020, from https://www.thestreet.com/technology/what-is-net-neutrality-14816850
Retta, M. (2020). Black Lives Matter-Related Videos Are Being Taken Off YouTube. Retrieved October 26, 2020, from https://www.teenvogue.com/story/black-lives-matter-youtube-videos