The Case of Net Neutrality: Are you FOR or AGAINST?

A discussion of the arguments surrounding Australia's Net Neutrality laws

Net Neutrality network internet concept vector illustration. bakhtiarzein/Depositphotos, is licensed under (CC BY-NC-SA 2.5)

Bella de Groot (480366827)

October 16, 2019 – 10:50pm

To this day the question of whether or not Australia should implement net neutrality regulations still remains. Net neutrality is when Internet Service Providers (ISPs) must handle all forms of internet traffic and content with equality and without discrimination (DeNardis, 2014). The recent US abandonment of net neutrality principles in attempts to promote innovativeness in the broadband market has sparked discussion as to whether Australia ought to adopt similar guidelines (FCC, 2018).

Net neutrality advocates rallying in front of the Federal Communications Commission in 2017 by Yuri Gripas/Reuters. All rights reserved.

This essay will discuss the arguments for and against Australia’s involvement in net neutrality regulations. Supporters of net neutrality argue that it protects users from the controlling behaviour of ISPs and encourages innovation between content producers. On the other side, opponents maintain that Australia’s current competitive internet infrastructure is adequate. In conjunction with solid consumer protection laws, they believe there is no great need for an adoption of net neutrality in Australia.

This essay will aim to also shed light on alternate responses to the net neutrality debate. Perhaps a more nuanced and adaptable framework in which ISPs are transparent and users are able to achieve complete expression and be able to access information needs to be considered for an Australian context. The video below explains how the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to repeal Obama-era net neutrality protections. The essay will continue to unpack this further on.

So, what’s the history of net neutrality and how has it changed over time?

Initially a term introduced by Tim Wu, net neutrality aims to provide a pathway for all internet traffic that will flow equally with the same speed to the user (Cook, 2014). It deals with the way in which users are able to access the internet through a service operator. Through removing the unequal treatment of internet traffic, users are able to freely explore online information and services. It also means that regardless of the content, its origin or its distributer, it cannot be discriminated against by the ISP (DeNardis, 2014). Bagwell maintains that net neutrality, in theory, creates rights for its users and ensures users ability to access communication, information and innovation which in turn allows the Internet to remain global and competitive (Bagwell, 2012). Examples of exclusionary behaviour by ISPs can include:

  • Denial of access through blocking content
  • Forcing users to authenticate themselves
  • Slow download speeds or constructing fast lanes for certain types of data
  • Favouring through IP addresses which mainly benefits large multimedia providers such as Google

(Prasad & Sridhar, 2014)

The 1934 Common carrier laws in the US form the initial birthplace for the concept of net neutrality. The aim of the laws was to ensure that the goods being paid to transport (e.g people or data) must be done so in a way that is agnostic to the thing being transported. Common carrier laws depended on universal service obligations: a form of consumer protection in which equal access to landline telephones and pay phones was available regardless of where you were based (Pickard, Berman, 2019). This led to the 2010 establishment of the Open Internet Order which ensured ISPs couldn’t discriminate against certain content on their network.

In the same way that railroad companies are common carriers for people and cannot discriminate ticket sales based on race or gender, ISPs should not be permitted to block or redirect internet traffic that uses their network (Owen, 2007). As seen in the infograph below, the absence of net neutrality rules can negatively impact small businesses and start-ups. Unlike giant ISPs they can’t afford to pay for prioritisation and hence must stay in the “slow lane” of internet traffic which can have detrimental consequences for the success of their business. At the end of the day only one group can benefit and unfortunately, it’s not the small businesses.

Infograph depicting internet traffic with and without net neutrality by Alyssa Templeton, is licensed under (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

However, in 2017 the US abandoned net neutrality in an effort to promote their ability to be innovative in the broadband market (FCC, 2018). The FCC believed that regulation reduced competition. The ruling allowed for ISPs to charge for a new type of service. This service can be used by the general consumer, schools and libraries, or for businesses wanting to spread their products online to the public faster and at a higher quality (Cook, 2014). Additionally, the revoke of the ruling to write and enforce net neutrality policy was based upon the belief that in many communities, few or no choices of ISPs exist. A lack of competition among available ISP’s will continue to threaten individual Internet users which is why the FCC deemed it important to promote competition amongst ISP’s (Cook, 2014).

Berghel (2017) argues that the thought of the long-term interests of both broadband providers and the public being coincident is extremely naïve. He continues to maintain that profit motive, in nearly every case, supersedes any inclination toward public benefit, and this is clearly seen with net neutrality regulations.

Australia currently has no net neutrality guidelines, nor does it have market competition surrounding the quality and cost of its ISPs (Stylianou, 2017). In its place, the Australian Competitition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) monitors competition amongst ISPs and provides a structure in which collusive conduct and use of market power are prohibited and to ensure user rights are being met (Daly, 2016). Following the US’s decisions to overturn net neutrality, there have been concerns as to whether or not this could impact Australia’s ISPs.

 

The case FOR Net Neutrality in Australia

Content providers tend to be in favour of net neutrality regulations with their main argument concerning the protection of user rights and removing unequal competition between ISPs. In the US, telecommunication companies and even large providers such as Netflix have been known to engage in discriminatory behaviours in the absence of strict net neutrality principles.

The lack of net neutrality guidelines in Australia means there’s a higher chance for providers to engage in non-neutral activity. For instance, the increase in broadband services converging in Australia to avoid competition demonstrates how net neutrality may have a positive impact in ensuring equal user traffic despite providers attempts to get ahead of one another (Johnson, 2009) 

Scholars such as Rimmer (2017) urge the government to consider adopting net neutrality in Australia in order to “boost innovation and stimulate investment”. Once again the idea of profit over ethics resonates within the debate. Additionally, net neutrality laws are necessary for ensuring the ability for individuals to express themselves freely and to access information, regardless of whether if it is cultural or political discourse (McDirarmid & Shears, 2016). Withholding information from individuals defeats the initial values of the internet to provide an open and easily accessible database for all users.

Supporter of net neutrality protests outside a Federal Building in Los Angeles, California on November 28, 2017 by Ronen Tivony/NurPhoto via Getty Images.All rights reserved.

Australia’s largest telecommunications organisation, Telstra, is responsible for providing both Internet and fixed line infrastructure to thousands of customers nationwide. It currently owns 50% of Foxtel, a TV extension provider, which raises potential discriminatory issues (Daly, 2016). The vertical integration of many ISPs and content distributers can be problematic. For example, the ACCC accused Telstra of slowing down internet traffic to privilege their own online content. However, providing transparency around traffic monitoring services and relationships with integrated providers can deal with these speculations (Daly, 2016). Hence, this demonstrates how net neutrality regulations may be beneficial in ensuring equal treatment of all network traffic.

 

The case AGAINST Net Neutrality in Australia

The majority of Australians seem to believe that net neutrality regulations are unnecessary for our context. Berghel (2017) argues that whilst net neutrality is in the public interest, it interferes with broadband providers being able to maximise profits which in turn, explains why the regulations face strong opposition from the content providers.

Aside from this Daly (2016) states that the argument is irrelevant as Australia uses an alternate pricing model to the US so that users pay ISPs upfront for a pre-determined speed and download limit for Internet accessibility.

Leslie Jones Snl GIF, by Saturday Night Live, is licensed under (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

Manwaring (2010) discusses three key arguments as to why net neutrality is not necessary in Australia

  1. Supporters of net neutrality are merely attempting to fix an issue that isn’t broken- there have been no prior non-neutral issues.
  2. Delaying and blocking online traffic makes it difficult for ISPs to practice beneficial traffic management behaviours- ‘beneficial discrimination’ can assist in bettering customer service instead of limiting competition.
  3. Abandons innovation and investment opportunities- limiting profit avenues will mean that ISPs will be reluctant to invest in network improvements.

 

A Discussion- Can a happy medium be reached?

The debate of net neutrality proposes many nuances. The lack of an international regulation system can be put down to an inability to removing preconceived and outdated principles of the internet when it comes to creating policy (Stylianou, 2017). The last thing that Australia needs is a regulation that is over or under inclusive (Stylianou, 2017)

By looking at the US model of net neutrality it’s wise to propose a potential concept in which non-neutral behaviour can be prevented instead of waiting for exclusionary practices to eventually occur. If a framework is to be put in place there are some criteria that must be filled. Transparency in all traffic management practices must be required and if possible, a level of competition within the broadband market to ensure innovation should remain (Prasad & Sridhar, 2014). Additionally regulation of net neutrality in regards to wrongdoing should only be exercised  once a competitive or restrictive practice has been observed (Prasad & Sridhar, 2014).

Infograph by Dayanita Ramesh / Media Matters. All rights reserved.

I would advise a more adaptable and malleable model of net neutrality for the Australian context. The popularity of vertically integrated corporations in our telecommunications industry increases the chances of engaging in discriminatory network practices which can affect the sector and the individual user. Guidelines will also allow ISPs to be completely transparent about traffic management techniques which establishes trust and complete openness between the distributer and the consumer and allows the user to access all forms of political and cultural information.

As Manwaring (2010) points out, ‘beneficial discrimination’ can not only assist in issues of traffic management but also limit exclusionary behaviour by ISPs. In saying this, governments should ensure that more studies and analysis of other international net neutrality practices and research is conducted prior to implementing regulations in Australia. Due to the lack of previous non-neutral behaviour amongst ISPs, Australia should remain hesitant to jump into any net neutrality guidelines without first assessing its diverse telecommunications sector.

 

 

Reference List

ACCC. (2019). Consumer Protection. Retrieved from https://www.accc.gov.au/consumers/consumer-protection

Andrews, T. (2009, October 28). How Google Profits From Net Neutrality. Americans for Tax Reform. Retrieved from https://www.atr.org/google-profits-net-neutrality-a4109

Bagwell, D. (2012). An open internet for all free speech and network neutrality . El Paso: LFB Scholarly Pub. LLC.

Berghel, H. (2017). Net Neutrality Reloaded. Computer50(10), 68–72. https://doi.org/10.1109/MC.2017.3641632

CNN. (2017, December 14). FCC overturns net neutrality regulations.

Retrieved from https://youtu.be/MYWH3wnvdvY

Code Part I—Common Carrier Regulation (US). Retrieved from https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/47/chapter-5/subchapter-II/part-I

Cook, V. (2014). Net Neutrality: What Is It and Why Should Educators Care? Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin80(4), 46–49. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1552711307/

Daly, A. (2016). Net Neutrality in Australia: The Debate Continues, But No Policy in Sight. In D. F. Belli l., Net Neutrality Compendium. Cham;: Springer.

DeNardis, L. (2014). The global war for internet governance (pp. 131-152). New Haven: Yale University Press.

FCC (2018). Restoring Internet Freedom. Federal Communications Commission. Retrieved from: https://www.fcc.gov/restoring-internet-freedom

IGF Dynamic Coalition. Retrieved from http://www.coreinternetvalues.org/

Johnson, K. (2009). The importance of Net Neutrality to the digital economy. Telecommunications Journal of Australia, 59(2), 19.1-19.16. doi:10.4225/03/5906c3ea35eff

McDiarmid, A. Shears, M. (2016). The Importance of Internet Neutrality to Protecting Human Rights Online. In: Belli L., De Filippi P. (Ed.) Net Neutrality Compendium. (pp. 31-41). DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-26425-7_12

NBN. Our wholesale pricing approach. Retrieved from https://www.nbnco.com.au/sell-nbn-services/products-services-pricing/our-pricing-approach

Owen, B., & Owen, B. (2007). Antecedents to Net Neutrality. Regulation30(3), 14–17. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/58754509/

Pearce, R. (2018, February 13). Senate knocks back net neutrality inquiry. Computerworld. Retrieved from https://www.computerworld.com.au/article/633335/senate-knocks-back-net-neutrality-inquiry/

Pickard, V., & Berman, D. (2019). THE BATTLE FOR OWNERSHIP AND CONTROL OF COMMUNICATION INFRASTRUCTURES. In After Net Neutrality: A New Deal for the Digital Age. New Haven; London: Yale University Press. DOI: 10.2307/j.ctvqc6h2t.4

Prasad, R., & Sridhar, V. (2014). Net Neutrality. In The Dynamics of Spectrum Management. https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198099789.003.0008

Rimmer, M. (2017). It’s Time We Had a Conversation About Net Neutrality. Australasian Science38(5), 39. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1930773233/

Spangler, T. (2018, July 16). Netflix CEO Says U.S. Rollback of Net Neutrality Rules Is No Big Deal. Variety. Retrieved from https://variety.com/2018/digital/news/netflix-ceo-says-u-s-rollback-of-net-neutrality-rules-is-no-big-deal-1202874570/

Stylianou, K. 2017. We don’t need strict net neutrality rules to keep the internet fair. The Conversation. August 3. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/we-dont-need-strict-net-neutrality-rules-to-keep-the-internet-fair-81144

What Is My IP Address.com (2000-2019) Retrieved from https://whatismyipaddress.com/isp

 

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