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It’s Time We Had a Conversation About Net Neutrality

Credit: Henrik5000/iStockphoto

Credit: Henrik5000/iStockphoto

By Matthew Rimmer

Net neutrality is more than an issue about consumer internet access and speeds. It also has implications for freedom of speech, competition and innovation.

Network neutrality started out as a philosophical concept to prevent broadband providers from blocking, throttling or slowing internet services to further their own commercial interests. While former US President Barack Obama’s administration introduced clear bright-line rules to protect consumers from broadband discrimination, the Trump administration plans to dismantle these regulations as part of its deregulation agenda.

There are many benefits to be derived from network neutrality. A free and open internet promotes consumer rights, innovation, competition, and freedom of expression. Network neutrality ensures that consumer rights are not undermined by internet service providers (ISPs), ensuring that consumers do not suffer a dystopia of slow lanes and fast-paid lanes on the internet.

Network neutrality helps ensure that the internet is a free and open platform that supports innovation. In particular, it ensures that start-up companies and new market entrants have an equal playing field. Without such protection for competition, ISPs could use their role as gatekeepers to reinforce their monopolies.

Network neutrality also plays an important role in freedom of speech. The American Civil Liberties Union has argued: “As information technology advances apace, the meaningful exercise of our constitutional rights – including the freedoms of speech, assembly, press and the right to petition government – has become literally dependent on broadband internet access”. Likewise US Senator Al Franken has argued: “Network neutrality is the First Amendment issue of our time”.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation: “If big ISPs win this fight, the next iteration of the internet might look something more like cable TV, where providers have a great deal of influence over which messages their members hear – and they can deprioritize or even flat-out block content they don’t like”.

There has also been concern about the digital divide in the United States. Writing on the dangers of trumping net neutrality, journalist Cory Doctorow has noted: “It’s the poor who suffer disproportionately”. added: ‘The open internet allows people of color to tell their own stories and organize for racial and social justice.”

The threat to an open internet is real because competition in US broadband markets is limited, particularly in rural America. Terrell McSweeny of the Federal Trade Commission and Jon Sallet of the Federal Communications Commission commented: “More than half of rural census blocs have no choice of a high-speed broadband provider, which condemns them to slow speeds for any service they can get”.

While the United States debates network neutrality, Australia still has not had a proper conversation about network neutrality. The issue has been periodically raised in the context of debates over the National Broadband Network, media convergence and competition reform.

According to Dr Angela Daly of Queensland University of Technology: “While large vertically integrated corporations such as Telstra with incentives to manage traffic in certain ways continue to cast a long shadow over the Australian Internet landscape, net neutrality seems to be a debate unlikely to recede from view in the near future”.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has been undertaking research on broadband speeds in Australia. It has been issuing advertising guidance, and threatening to take enforcement action against companies engaged in misleading and deceptive conduct.

At a time when it is modernising its media laws, Australia would benefit from introducing the principle of network neutrality. The public interest doctrine would boost consumer choice, competition and innovation in Australia. Given his promotion of an “Ideas Boom”, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull should consider the adoption of net neutrality in Australia in order to boost innovation and stimulate investment.

It is important to recognise that network neutrality is not just a provincial American debate. It is a larger international debate over whether the internet should be free and open, and guided by principles of network neutrality, or subject to commercial controls by large monopolies.

Dr Matthew Rimmer is a Professor in Intellectual Property and Innovation Law at Queensland University of Technology.