Defining net neutrality

22 May 2015 | Tim Phillips

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Tim Phillips

Blog Author | Freelance writer


Among the tiny part of the population that actually knows what it is, net neutrality has tended to encourage polarised views (often about the same thing): for example it is either an essential feature of the internet to encourage startups, or an outmoded idea that holds back investment in innovation. It’s rare, however, for an institution to hold several positions at once, but that’s the state of the debate in Europe.

 

Among the tiny part of the population that actually knows what it is, net neutrality has tended to encourage polarised views (often about the same thing): for example it is either an essential feature of the internet to encourage startups, or an outmoded idea that holds back investment in innovation. It’s rare, however, for an institution to hold several positions at once, but that’s the state of the debate in Europe.

Position 1: The European parliament remains solidly in favour of neutrality.

Position 2: If you think this, you’re a fundamentalist. Whichever side of this debate you’re on, it’s a bit of a leap for a European commissioner responsible for telecoms to compare the pro-neutrality side to the Taliban. But Gunter Oettinger did indeed do this last month, at more or less the same time that the US Federal Communications Commission - an institution not traditionally associated with rabid fundamentalism - officially backed neutrality.

“Here we’ve got, particularly in Germany, Taliban-like developments. We have the Internet community, the Pirates on the move, it’s all about enforcing perfect uniformity. They talk about ‘the evil industry’”, he told his audience (you can find it easily on YouTube).

To explain: “Take a rural basic service hospital, which after a serious accident may have to serve as operating room, and the University clinic with a senior physician performs it – if this digital and electronic surgery is to be possible, it can only work with perfect connection quality and capacity for the transmission of the instructions given by the the senior surgeon working on the organs (lungs or heart or cardiovascular vessels) of the patient. We’ve got to be willing to pay a price for this. And you just can’t talk about perfect equality there.

“Is it more important, that in the car – the six-year-old daughter sitting in the back on the right, downloading music, YouTube, and on the left the nine-year-old rascal doing some random games – is it more important that those two [have a] real-time [connection] or that the old man in front hears in real time that someone is approaching from the right?”

Those of us who use Europe’s hospitals and cars must be pleased about one thing: even if he winds the policy argument, commissioner Oettinger isn’t designing today’s hospital or real-time safety networks, because it sounds like he thinks they should all use the same network as YouTube.

Position 3: Change the definition of neutrality. In recent months the European Commission (which doesn’t make law, but proposes legislation), and the Council of the EU, which works with both of them on policy matters and is run by a different one of the 28 members every six months, has moved away from support of US-style neutrality to embracing neutrality that involves a multi-tier service, a "compromise”, a "non-discriminatory and proportionate" plan which will be "principle-based" but not “anti-competitive”.

This is neutrality only if the phrases “neutral” and “not neutral” mean the same thing. The Council of the EU floats the idea of a “safety net”, so that the internet doesn’t completely grind to a halt for poor people. It doesn’t mean this compromise is automatically a bad idea: it’s just not neutrality, which it claims to be. 

There’s an argument that Europe’s system of government was deliberately constructed to create contradictions and disagreements, to stop strong countries dominating policy. With this in mind it’s useful to note that Oettinger (German) has an Estonian boss called Andrus Ansip who, as vice president in charge of the Digital Single Market, backs uncompromising neutrality as part of a much larger Telecom Single Market project. He doesn’t like the basis of negotiations (Position 3). In a speech at the end of March he said it shows a “lack of ambition”: 

“We need to make sure that the internet is not splintered apart by different rules.... No blocking or throttling.” At the moment it is not clear whether European throttling will take place in its networks, or among its policymakers.