Net Neutrality: A Free Internet Protects Free Speech

Tuesday, October 25, 2016
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PHOTO: EFF Photos. CC BY | EFF Senior Designer Hugh D'Andrade.

By Ravi S. Jha

As the Internet continues to become a key engine of the global economy, as well as one of the fastest thriving industries, the public policy dilemma of network neutrality remains fierce and unresolved—a dilemma that will likely determine the future of the digital age.

Network neutrality refers to the principle that Internet service providers (ISPs) should allow access to all online content and applications regardless of the source, and without favoring or blocking particular websites or products. It calls for ISPs to treat all Internet traffic the same way, and to not give faster access to websites or users that can pay extra for prioritization.

Implementing net neutrality is essential to preventing discrimination against whole groups of Internet users based on a range of conditions, from socioeconomic status to political activity. Without net neutrality, ISPs could, for example, block or slow down access to websites that promote dissident voices or political views they disagree with—a clear threat to our free expression rights.

Proponents of regulated Internet, as opposed to net neutrality, argue that because the Internet holds such power, it cannot exist without a referee, whereas others argue this is a smokescreen to segment the web into fast and slow lanes based on how much users can afford to pay for Internet access or to influence online content. As net neutrality advocacy coalition Save The Internet states, “Just as your phone company shouldn’t decide who you can call and what you say on that call, your ISP shouldn’t be concerned with the content you view or post online.”

Net Neutrality is a Human Right

In a landmark resolution on July 1, 2016, the United Nations declared net neutrality to be “in accordance with international human rights obligations, in particular with regard to freedom of expression, freedom of association and privacy.” Not only does this resolution attribute equality to all data that flows across the Internet, it also recognizes all Internet users’ equal access to that data.

“The UN recognizes the global and open nature of the Internet as a driving force in accelerating progress towards development in its various forms,” the resolution stated, adding that any human rights practiced ‘offline’ must be guaranteed ‘online’ as well. The UN has solicited all states to ensure their citizens can exercise their human rights and fundamental freedoms on the Internet, as well as to ensure accountability for violations and abuses of these rights and freedoms.

Six years ago, Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, echoed the call for respecting human rights in the digital space when he pleaded for the Internet to be kept ‘neutral’ and ‘free’: “The Internet has become as important as anything man has ever created. But those freedoms are being chipped away.”

Support for Internet regulation, however, has only grown louder since Wozniak’s plea and despite the UN’s statements, becoming a key policy agenda for many governments, business enterprises, telecommunications (‘telcos’) companies and ISPs. These actors become gatekeepers that control loading speeds, prices for quality services and ease of access to content at the expense of our rights to free expression.

Fighting for Net Neutrality in Canada and the United States

In Canada, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) established a policy in 2009 to prevent content blocking and slowdowns, but the debate continues with regard to differential pricing. A consultation hearing is set to take place this month.

A controversial law was also recently passed by the Quebec government that allows the province to order ISPs to block unlicensed gambling websites that sap its revenue, raising questions about government interference with the Internet for financial gain. Critics of the legislation, called Bill 74, argue this method of regulating the Internet would be an abuse of the government’s power and an attack on net neutrality.

“It is censorship. It’s blocking access to otherwise legally available sites in the interests of enhancing one’s gambling monopoly,” said Timothy Denton, chairman of the Canadian chapter of the Internet Society, a group that advocates keeping the Internet open and free. In July 2016, the Public Interest Advocacy Centre filed an application with the CRTC arguing that Bill 74 encroaches on the federal government’s jurisdictions over telecommunications, and that it violates the constitutional right to free expression.

In the United States, the net neutrality debate raged for over a decade before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted “open Internet” rules designed to protect free expression and innovation on the Internet. These rules formally solidified legal protections for net neutrality as of June 2015, but advocates suggest the FCC is prone to a “doggedly pro-regulatory mindset” that precludes it from actually enforcing those net neutrality protections and allows broadband (high-speed Internet access) to continue to be overly regulated. Prior to finalizing the current rules, the FCC had proposed a draft rule that would have stood against net neutrality by permitting greater regulation from ISPs.

In the Presidential election, Hillary Clinton has shown support for net neutrality, stating, “the free Internet is not only essential for consumer choice and civic empowerment, it is a cornerstone of start-up innovation and creative disruption in technology markets.” She has called out the current policies for not being enough and wants a more comprehensive telecommunications act that accounts for internet access as an infrastructure problem. Donald Trump, on the other hand, has not put forth any formal statements about net neutrality, and in 2014 seemingly misunderstood what it is. His positions on a variety of issues have been hard to pin down, so it remains to be seen where he stands now.

Telcos and ISPs want to make money, not free Internet

While political threats to net neutrality remain a top concern, as governments adopt policies that erode it (sometimes despite public commitments in favour of it), an equally significant threat is the business practices of telcos and ISPs themselves. There are clear and emerging signs that telcos and ISPs are using sponsored data programs to diminish the core tenets of net neutrality.

Sponsored data programs charge online content providers to exempt their traffic from users’ mobile broadband data caps. While this provides users some relief from data caps, it also threatens to limit the reach of bottom-up creativity online through an uneven distribution model. In the long run, this will allow certain websites and online content to receive preferential treatment by installing data caps on Internet access and then collecting tolls to get around them. This unfairly disadvantages independent and noncommercial creators.

When given the choice between restricting Internet access (and charging a premium for higher bandwidth usage) or treating all data and users equally, telcos and ISPs will in all likelihood choose the most financially lucrative option. As such, it is enormous corporations that must be regulated, not the Internet itself, to encourage and pressure them into protecting net neutrality. There are some clear ways to protect net neutrality through ISP and telco regulations:

  • Introduce legislation that discourages ISPs from giving websites preferential treatment;
  • Prohibit paid prioritization so that websites are not stuck in the slow lane if they cannot afford to pay a required fee;
  • Introduce and enforce repercussions when ISPs slow down or speed up content based on the type of service;
  • Ensure ISPs and telcos preserve the democratization power of the Internet.

From online banking to communication protocols, breaking news to social media, the spread of ideas to the protection of free speech—network neutrality is a fundamental element of respecting human rights as our dependence on the digital world grows. It must be legitimately implemented, or we risk violating the basic tenets of freedom of expression and human rights in the Internet era.

Ravi Jha is a Toronto-based senior Public Policy & Governance Administrator, journalist, and a member of a free press advocacy group. Views on the subject are his own.

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