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2 October 2015

Niall Kitson portraitNet Neutrality is one of the founding principles of the Internet. Without open access infrastructure it’s possible to turn freedom of speech into ‘freedom’ of speech, limit the ability of people to connect via social networks or messaging services, and make innovation contingent on the size of a budget over the potential of an idea. In the same way that the publisher of a magazine, not the printer, handles the burden of libel insurance, telcos are not responsible for what travels over their networks. Granted, there are cases where this is not possible but let’s work with the utopian view.

Last year the Net Neutrality debate focused on the ability of networks to deliver premium services and the development of ‘fast lanes’. Netflix came under scrutiny for effectively being forced to create fast lanes with US telcos like Verizon and Comcast in order to provide decent quality of service for its users. Writing on the company blog, CEO Reed Hastings demanded that network providers not be allowed to “restrict, influence, or otherwise meddle with the choices consumers make”.

The telcos’ argument goes that as Netflix is responsible for such a large volume of traffic on their networks, it should pay more towards their upkeep. Granted, when 37% of US bandwidth is taken up by a single service it’s an easy argument to make but not a valid one. Companies like Netflix create demand for better networks. Consumers, in turn, will follow their needs, be that a 10Mb/s connection for checking e-mail or a 100Mb/s one for 4K streaming and online gaming across multiple devices. If Netflix helps create a demand for fibre over copper, it’s up to the ISPs to compete with each other, not to limit Netflix’s ability to invest in new technology and content.

The Netflix case is an easy illustration of why Network Neutrality has to work. Services drive demand for better networks which provide the headroom to make even better services possible. It’s the kind of competitive energy the Internet thrives on. You can’t put a toll on the information superhighway and expect to keep cars on the road.

This week a story broke that could threaten Net Neutrality after a telco introduced ad blocking technology as a way to introduce a revenue stream from content providers and consumers – effectively turning a network into a publisher.

The Denis O’Brien-owned Digicel Group made the news this week after it announced plans to introduce ad blocking as standard for its customers. Digicel, which operates in 33 markets including Jamaica, the Caribbean and Haiti, has argued that online services should contribute to the continued development of the networks they use. If a deal is agreed on Digicel’s terms, the ripple effects could have serious legal and commercial implications around the world.

“Companies like Google, Yahoo and Facebook talk a great game and take a lot of credit when it comes to pushing the idea of broadband for all – but they put no money in. Instead they unashamedly trade off the efforts and investments of network operators like Digicel to make money for themselves,” O’Brien said in a statement. “That’s unacceptable, and we as a network operator, are taking a stand against them to force them to put their hands in their pockets and play a real role in improving the opportunities for economic empowerment for the global population.”

Actually, that’s not strictly true. Google has a limited fibre network delivering 1Gb/s to cities like Atlanta, Kansas City and Austin. Facebook has Internet.org, a walled garden of basic services delivered via cellular connections. Then there are the wackier projects they’re working on like using hot air balloons and solar-powered drones. The short version is Web companies are investing in disruptive infrastructure – the kind that could put Digicel’s business under pressure.

For the moment, O’Brien has a commanding position in developing markets like Haiti, Fiji and Jamaica. He’s a prominent gatekeeper, quick to spot an opportunity and the possibility of tapping into content providers’ revenue streams is tempting.

But here’s the thing. When it comes to apportioning responsibility for content, under the current ‘church and state’ paradigm network providers come away scot free. It doesn’t matter to, say, Virgin Media that Google has to honour right to be forgotten requests. That’s a content issue and the costs associated with it are borne by Google. Aligning the telco with the service provider commercially will effectively turn the internet from a network with a content overlay to a single commodity with tailored offerings. Who wants to subscribe to any business that would give you the Internet except for Netflix or Facebook or Google?

Of course the Web giants won’t entertain any revenue sharing deal in exchange for the lifting of ad blocking restrictions. Ad blocking is a global problem that can only be solved by smarter advertising and paid-for white listing – preferably more so the former. Penalising popular services for being popular will create a selling point for competing network operators and even create space spaces for new operators in weak markets.

Ad blocking is an issue but the solution isn’t ‘pay to play’ networks – that’s ‘pay for access to the problem’. Worse, for consumers it’s ‘pay for the bits of the Internet we can make money from’. Rest assured, the Web giants’ techno-libertarian politics won’t entertain the idea. Don’t be surprised if your see massive investment in ad blocking countermeasures in the near future.

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