The recent London Olympic games had many poignant moments, but one in particular stood out for those with a keen interest in technology. During the opening ceremony Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web, tweeted a message from the mainstage which was then displayed in huge letters all around the stadium. It simply read ‘This is for Everyone’, and was a reminder of how important the modern internet has become to all of us. It’s a concern then that in the past few years a political storm has been brewing about the future of the web, or more precisely how we gain access to it.
The argument centres around the principle of ‘Net Neutrality’, and looks set to become one of the most important debates in technology for the foreseeable future. Tim Wu – Professor at Columbia Law School, author of the book ‘The Master Switch’, and the man who coined the phrase Net Neutrality – recently stated in an interview that ‘The internet was built on the principle that the carriers take your data where you want it to go, and that people are allowed to communicate over the internet without interference from the people in the middle. It’s a pretty profound principle’.
This is the essence of Net Neutrality. The fact that the companies that supply you with your gateway to the internet remain neutral to the content and sites that you visit, treating all as equal. It’s obvious, sensible, and exactly how the internet has essentially functioned up until now. But as we increase the amount of data we consume, due to services like Youtube and BBC iPlayer, some ISPs are beginning to talk about charging more to carry this content, or at least to ensure that the quality of its delivery remains high.
It can be easy to forget that the way we access the web is still controlled by only a few companies – those with the physical infrastructure that allows signals to pass between two points. This gives those companies a tremendous amount of power as our reliance on the internet increases. How would you feel if your provider decided that to access some of the more popular online sites you would be required to pay them more? You want Facebook as part of your package, then that’ll be an extra £5 a month. Youtube? £10. It might sound far fetched but there is growing concern that this behaviour could be on the horizon unless governments decide that Net Neutrality becomes enshrined in law.
It isn’t just a simple case of the amount of data we consume, that would seem reasonable, instead it’s more a case of where or from whom we receive it. Recently customers who bought an iPhone 5 on the AT&T network in the US were told that they wouldn’t be allowed to use the built in Facetime feature over their 3G service, even though it should come under the customers’ data plan. AT&T were basically telling their customers that they could only use the data which they were paying for in a manner that the company would decide. We’ve seen something similar here in the UK were several of the mobile carriers have disabled the Skype service on their networks, and also deny customers the option of tethering their laptops or tablets to their mobile phones to create internet hotspots. This selective attitude towards allowable services could theoretically be used to promote rival services with whom the carriers have favourable agreements.
Media reform advocacy groups such Free Press (freepress.net), who started the Save The Internet campaign (savetheinternet.com), voice a chilling version of the future when they argue that the ISPs, and media companies that back them, ‘want to tax content providers to guarantee speedy delivery of their data. And they want to discriminate in favor of their own apps, services and content — while slowing down or blocking competitors’ services.’ This might sound like classic scaremongering, but it should be noted that back in 2005 AT&T caused outrage when it proposed charging certain web companies increased rates so they could receive preferential treatment for their web traffic. This would have effectively given the paying sites faster download speeds than their non-paying rivals, and made AT&T a tidy profit from this two-tiered approach. Then in 2007 Comcast, the largest cable TV and internet provider in the US, was found to be tampering with traffic across their network to certain file sharing sites in an attempt to make them unusable.
In fact a recent joint study between the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC) and the European Commission found that at least 20% of mobile Internet users in Europe ‘have contracts that allow their Internet service provider (ISP) to restrict services like VOIP (e.g. Skype) or peer-to-peer file sharing.’ while the same was true for home broadband connections, especially in regards to peer-to-peer sites at peak times.
The main concern that advocates argue is one where the internet as we know it becomes more of a series of walled gardens where access is strictly controlled and regulated by a few large corporations each of whom offer their own services and media – almost a return to the days of AOL and Compuserve, with customers locked-in to their specific version of the web. ‘Big media companies want to be in charge again,’ states Tim Wu, ‘Most of the media for the last 150 years have been closed, that is if you look at NBC, or you look at the cable networks – they decide what goes on the network. So the threat comes from the fact that the broadcasters, phone companies, cable [companies], are used to that business model and want to go back’.
In 2012 the SOPA, PIPA, and ACTA bills were proposed in the US and Europe as a way of curtailing content on the web under the auspice of copyright protection. If passed they would have forced ISPs to regulate the content that went through their networks, which could have resulted in sites being delisted from search results, thus virtually disappearing from the internet, if the ISPs thought there was a possibility that they contained copyright material. The bills were defeated in their respective countries after widespread discontent from the online community, but the entertainment industry is thought to be preparing new ones, and their lobbying power means that they will certainly be heard.
The political level of involvement in the issue saw Holland become the first European country to make it law that no ISP can charge more for access to specific sites, while Chile has also created relevant legislation. The concern about Net Neutrality became so great that even President Obama spoke about it in a 2010 interview, during which he said ‘We’ve got to keep the internet open, we don’t want to create a bunch of gateways that prevent someone who doesn’t have a lot of money but has a good idea from being able to start their next Youtube, or their next Google on the internet’.
The battlelines are being drawn, and it looks like this is an issue that’s set to be hard fought over the next few years, and which could decide our online experience for decades to come.
A version of this post originally appeared as part of a new series of features called News Viewpoint that I write for the PC Advisor website and also appears in the February 2013 issue of the print magazine – yes, I know that’s in the future, but the way magazines work is a mysterious form of sorcery. To see the original click HERE or pop out to your local newsagent and purchase the rather splendid magazine itself.