When the World Wide Web revolution began in the early 1990s, the principle of net neutrality was universally recognised as one of the cornerstones of the Internet. Now, however, at a time when neutrality is becoming crucially important for innovation, some authorities are chipping away at the principle.
“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.‟ So says the introduction to A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace written by American poet and essayist, ‘cyberlibertarian’ and political activist John Perry Barlow, which over the years has become enshrined as one of the founding texts of the World Wide Web.
Among other basic notions, the Declaration proclaims the principle of net neutrality, which guarantees that no external agent should exert any governance over communications between Web users. So the principle is all about liberty of access, about avoiding a situation where only consumers of paid-for content have full access to the net. However, with the exponential economic growth arising from the provision of Internet services, this principle is often severely tested. Many governments, with the United States authorities out in front, often seriously encroach on the principle of net neutrality, frequently using the growth and expansion of online marketplaces as a pretext for intervention.
However, the Obama administration in the United States made it a point of honour to safeguard the principle of net neutrality. In February 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) took a step forward by guaranteeing an ‘Open Internet’, creating protections for Internet users vis-à-vis their Internet Service Providers (ISPs). The ruling, which protects all Internet users including online consumers, aroused a lively debate, with the US conservative camp fearing that this ruling would hinder the commercial freedom of US companies and put the brakes on innovation, which they argue requires the US administration to take a more ‘laisser-faire’ stance.
With the election of Donald Trump and the appointment of Ajit Pai, who is openly opposed to net neutrality, as Chairman of the FCC, many Internet users fear political interference from the Trump administration in the basic freedoms of cyberspace. These fears appear to have been justified. In February, the new FCC Chairman decided to exempt more ISPs from the enhanced transparency rule promulgated in 2015. All ISPs with 250,000 or fewer subscribers will now be free from the requirement to fully inform customers about, inter alia, any promotional rates, extra fees, and data cap policies that might be applied to web and/or mobile services. This move by the FCC basically gives the all-clear for some ISPs to roll out business models which will restrict the range of free content available to Internet subscribers, curbing or blocking access to some types of online content, services and apps so as to give priority on their pipes to the more lucrative premium content/service formulae offered by major content providers.
Given the clear world dominance of US-based online media providers such as Google and Netflix, this is no small issue. On 7 March, on the initiative of Washington, D.C-based liberal advocacy group Common Cause, 171 organisations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Greenpeace, published an open letter addressed to the Trump administration in which they argued: “Protecting net neutrality is crucial to ensuring that the internet remains a central driver of economic growth and opportunity, job creation, education, free expression, and civic organizing for everyone”. The letter continues: “The continuation of net neutrality is essential to the continued growth of the country and to ensuring access to social, political, and economic empowerment for all.”
What is at stake here, even more importantly than maintaining consumer protection rules in the commercial sphere, is the need to uphold individual freedoms for all. Last August the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC), Europe's telecommunications regulator, published final guidelines on how the European Union intends to implement net neutrality rules. However, BEREC might find itself in a head-to-head confrontation with its Washington counterpart over the changes taking place in US Internet governance. One argument that the EU body might consider advancing is that the Internet should now be recognised as a valuable part of humanity’s worldwide heritage.