Based on the understanding that the Internet (“network of the networks”) is to avoid centralized control, its management is bound to be inseparable from the relationship of power. So net neutrality is not just a matter of pure technology, instead, various subjects such as multinational corporations, private institutions, multilateral institutions, national governments and civil society are involved. (Musiani, 2012) Based on Musiani’s article Net Neutrality as an Internet Governance Issue: The Globalization of an American-Born Debate, this article will explain how the issue of net neutrality, from a technical debate on the Internet transport layer turned to a debate among different participants in the field of infrastructure and information technology, and eventually entailed issues of fundamental liberties, multi-stakeholder governance, and technical democracy, started in America, and developed differently around the world.
What is net neutrality?
The concept of net neutrality is: Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally. There should be no discriminating or charging differently by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication. (Wu, 2003) The proposer was an American scholar Timothy Shiou-Ming Wu in 2003. Shortly speaking, it requires all Internet traffic should be treated equally.
The birth and development of net neutrality debate in the US
During the end of 2002 to 2003, cable operators in the US required the Federal Communications Commission to authorize them to negotiate specific broadband networks with manufacturers, thereby refusing to extend the neutrality rules already applied to narrowband Internet. Experts Tim Wu and Lawrence Lessig pointed out the risk that this infringement of the neutrality of the transport layer will hurt the innovation and non-discriminatory treatment of users.
Four years later in 2007, an influential debate took place between operator Comcast and FCC. FCC penalized Comcast for the decision to impede access to the website BitTorrent. Comcast went to court to sue the FCC’s injunction and won. The court revoked the FCC’s ban in the trial based on liberal opinion, saying that government could not legitimately interfere in technical decisions of a private actor. (Cyrus, 2012) Pragmatism and the market must prevail and decide.
Later in 2010, the FCC adopted a text on net neutrality. The supporters of net neutrality thought it was ambiguous for mobile networks. They believed it was letting the market decide the neutrality rules without necessary debate. While the opponents of net neutrality argued that this “Preserving the Open Internet” order is unconstitutional because it interferes with technical decisions of operators. So it didn’t receive satisfying response.
After the new generation of Internet technology popularized in the United States and the world, Google, YouTube, Apple, Android… all these familiar names walked into people’s daily lives, new debates and competitions on the previous net neutrality have been raised again. One of the representative examples is the Apple Company. It is well known that Apple has its own unique set of technical supporting facilities, Apple store, IOS system… And yes, it was not a good follower of net neutrality. The iPhone’s operating model shifted power from network operators to hardware manufacturers. For example, in the App Store, Apple not only negotiates directly with application providers but also negotiates directly with mobile operators. In this way, it consolidates its central position. For the users’ side, they rely on the background agreement to access the service under certain conditions and cannot access other platforms other than Apple’s authorization.
Another example is Google and YouTube. In 2010, Google negotiated with and paid Verizon (a mobile network operator) in exchange for “preferential treatment” for YouTube videos from Google’s sub company. And in the competition between Android and Apple’s iPhone, by blocking some of Google’s applications, Apple showed its exclusive system power. This was also one of the reasons of Google changing its position of insisting on Net neutrality.
The situation in the United States reveals that the debate of net neutrality involves liberalism, competition, consumer rights, and the function of the state in regulation. (Goldsmith, 2007) Allowing Internet companies such as network providers to compete freely can easily lead companies to take actions that endanger net neutrality, such as treating users differently and monopolizing. The national government’s increased intervention in Internet companies to maintain net neutrality will be criticized by companies for obstructing the free market. Sometimes the government itself will tend to restrict the implementation of net neutrality to a certain extent for reasons such as controlling network security. So this is a comprehensive governance issue involving multiple interests.
Net neutrality in Europe and other countries
Not only in America, the debate of net neutrality has entered an international dimension, just like the Internet itself. Representatively, European developed countries also face their own challenges. Europe, with different situation, its regulatory framework and pro-competitive structure may have delayed European confrontation on this issue. One obvious point is the relationship between liberalism and the protection of civil liberties needs to be reconsidered. Some civil organizations have called for net neutrality to be incorporated into the law to avoid continuing disputes. And some others have also considered replacing “neutrality” by “transparency”, but the relevant groups believe that it is almost impossible to control network activities in order to achieve this model.
In response to the net neutrality dispute, many countries, especially developed countries have taken different methods. Sweden is unenthused about pro-neutrality legislation, saying consumers can easily switch between different providers and maintain active competition in the market. The Swedish Post and Telecom Authority (PTS) believes that transparency and competition can promote the formation of neutrality in this new field. While the country famous of freedom, The Netherlands promulgated a net neutrality protection law in 2012. Operators are prohibited from discriminatory communications between users, etc. And pretty soon Slovenia followed the same path. In Australia, the government refused to impose a form of neutrality in 2004. Australia has been supporting an establishment of a national Internet “filter and control” system to combat illegal activities such as child pornography, so it does not support such proposal which may support ulterior uses. This case reflects the less positive side of net neutrality. Complete and thorough net neutrality will cause the government to substantially lose control of the network. For example, it is difficult to know the publisher of illegal information in a high net neutrality environment, and network-based criminal activities will become difficult to control.
In some other countries, net neutrality has a stronger political atmosphere. For example in the case of Italy, experts found that the political background and tendency of the media is one of the important sources of the politicization of Net Neutrality issues. Italian consumers are sensitive to the monopolistic tendencies in network management, emphasizing that lack of neutrality may lead to excessive concentration. There have been more acute conflicting cases in Norway and South Korea. In those two countries, there had been cases that net operators dared to curb the websites of state-run radio and TV companies in 2006. In Norway, it led to the Norwegian Post and Telecommunication authority and relevant economic actors in consultation and established a number of guidelines. And in South Korea, the Communications Commission negotiated with the related firms. This reflects that in some countries, inflated capital attempts to influence and manipulate the country’s official media. This attempt attracted the attention of the government and introduced policies to curb it. In Canada, the Public Interest Advocacy Center submitted a report highlighting the different stages of the problem, urging the parliament to resolve the issue of net neutrality. In the UK, the multiple-speeds system is supported. The government has affirmed the policy that consumers and content providers can choose to pay for different levels of service quality. This requires users to be completely transparent and quantify potential broadband users at the point of sale, which is very difficult.
A case study about net neutrality in China
Here, a relevant situation will introduced to help understanding. Firstly as background information, in China there are three Tier 1 operators: China Mobile (Yidong), China Unicom (Liantong) and China Telecom (Dianxin). The secondary operators themselves do not have a backbone network. They deploy a local area network in a certain area and then rent broadband optical fibers from China Telecom, China Mobile, and China Unicom, which is equivalent to wholesale to retail. Since that China is a socialist country, all top internet operators are state-owned enterprises, the problem of net neutrality such as monopoly of big companies may not seem to be significant. Some people may hold such opinion during the beginning, and later on they will find it wrong.
In fact, the issue of net neutrality also exists in China, whether it is at the aspect of government actions or at the aspect of commercial companies. A typical and serious example, Tencent king card (Dawangka), this is a mobile data package created by Tencent and China Unicom. It’s pretty cheap and one of the most important features is that if someone uses this package, the network data generated when he/she use over 200 apps that belong to or cooperate with Tencent, are not billed. They include: QQ, Wechat, QQ music, QQ Browser, Tencent Video, Wang zhe rong yao, Game of Peace, etc. Those are all very popular Apps in Chinese people’s life. For ordinary users, it can help them save some money in the short term. But this kind of behavior that seriously damages Net Neutrality will have long-term bad effects. The company that leads the market will gain a monopoly and healthy, positive competition will be blocked or even eliminated. Then newly-founded companies have no advantages, either parasitic on large companies, or be squeezed to close down. For users, when no company can compete with the oligarch, it will completely control people’s cyber life, and ordinary users will face arbitrary charges and mistreatment——anyway, there is no other choice.
The lack of net neutrality can cause horrible results, and at present China’s understanding of this is still insufficient. Compared with Western developed countries, China’s net neutrality problem has its own characteristics. For example, China’s fundamental net operators are all state-owned enterprises, and their nature as public services is stronger. Their competitive model is different from that of private Internet companies. Some models of free competition cannot be applied to these state-owned enterprises. Because of the centralized government’s controlling of the Internet, net neutrality discussions involve less intensity of freedom and privacy. (Hu, 2011) And although there are many private Internet companies which are very large and strong, they are not much interested in exploring and promoting the deep-level development of the Internet, and are described as “financial companies with the skin of the Internet companies”. These companies are keen to use cash flow and information flow to continuously expand themselves and annex other companies, form a monopoly, and obtain as much profit as possible. In the era of rapid development of China’s network information technology, those profit-seeking business behaviors that violate net neutrality are allowed. In fact, Internet companies represented by Tencent are forming very serious monopolies and have begun to endanger market freedom and active competition. But what can be relieved is that due to the strong government, when the Chinese government realizes the harm of this situation, there will be relatively small resistance to reverse it and thus contributed to net neutrality.
In conclusion, net neutrality does be a comprehensive Internet governance issue. Political entities may adopt laissez-faire methods or enact laws and regulations that support net neutrality. This debate will have a real impact on the Internet. Net neutrality is a set of principles, and of discussions that needs to be placed within the larger reflections on Internet governance.
The debate on net neutrality permeates many different national positions, which often stem from the different social backgrounds in which the Internet and its use are located, and therefore it is also a microcosm of broader governance. But at the same time it also permeates many aspects of convergence that cross national borders. This is mainly because, regardless of nationality, the values of anti-monopoly and freedom from civil society organizations representing ordinary people have ideological proximity.
Cyrus, F. (2012, 07). “Libertarians make the case: net neutrality is unconstitutional.”. Ars Technica. Retrieved 04, 2021, from https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2012/07/libertarians-make-the-case-net-neutrality-is-unconstitutional/
Goldsmith, J. (2007). Who controls the Internet? Illusions of a borderless world. Strategic Direction.
Hu, H. L. (2011). The political economy of governing isps in china: Perspectives of net neutrality and vertical integration. The China Quarterly, 523-540.
Musiani, F., Schafer, V., & Le Crosnier, H. (2012). Net neutrality as an Internet governance issue: The globalization of an American-born debate. Revue francaise detudes americaines, (4), 47-63.
Wu, T. (2003). Network neutrality, broadband discrimination. J. on Telecomm. & High Tech. L., 2, 141.