Report: Citizens’ Internet, The Many Threats to Neutrality

On March 31 2015, Netopia launched its report Citizens’ Internet – The Many Threats to Neutrality at the European Economic and Social Committee in Brussels.

Any analysis of the impact of digital technology on our society starts with technology rather than society. It is built into the question: technology first, impact later. With this perspective, it may appear as if technology evolves in a vacuum, only to late be released and applied to the normal world. This attributes a lot of influence to technology: given the right circumstances, technology can be expected to fix jobs and growth, but also new forms of culture and freedom for the oppressed. Or it could drive us toward a surveillance-state, middle-class jobs lost to robots and hyper-capitalism with companies more powerful than states. Whether you ask a techno-optimist or –pessimist, the basic assumption is the same: technology impacts society.

The most recent example is the topic of network neutrality, which has become the focus of policy-making in both Brussels and Washington recently, with the European Parliament’s vote for network neutrality in April 2014, the US Federal Communications Commission’s ruling on the same issue in February this year and the draft agreement from EU member states this March. Again depending on whom you ask, network neutrality is either the solution to freedom and democracy online, or the end of innovation and network investment. Either the internet will end up with slow and fast lanes, further enforcing the winner-take-all dynamics of the network economy, making bigger companies stronger and smaller weaker. Or network neutrality regulation would stand in the way of digital life-and-death matters such as road safety management, connected or self-driving cars, remote surgery and other tele-medicine applications.

Network neutrality is either the solution to freedom and democracy online, or the end of innovation and network investment

Network neutrality is based on the idea that infrastructure is independent from content. That may have been the case with the telephone networks of the 20th Century (often state-owned) and the cables distributing television. However, today we see content and infrastructure merging. Internet services make operating systems for mobile phones, invest in data centers and even offer of high-speed fiber subscriptions to consumers. Device manufacturers operate software marketplaces where third party developers can only offer apps tailored to specific hardware. Internet access providers develop content services and shape traffic to protect their business models. The celebrated “end-to-end”-structure of the network is challenged by the walled gardens of apps and the expanding domains of cloud giants. And the network technology itself changes, with content delivery networks storing popular parts of the internet’s content close to the user rather than on the original server. In contrast to this trend of centralization, there is the opposing trend of fragmentation: public wifi-hotspots connecting users without involvement of telecom operators. The machine-to-machine communication of the so-called Internet of things which often uses different communications channels than the regular TCP/IP-standard internet. Thumb drives with storage capacities far beyond the day-to-day needs of average users allow for swapping files in “meatspace”, the so-called sneakernet. And as increasing amounts of internet content is locked away behind passwords on the deep web, there is no longer one unified internet, but many. In this complex landscape, is a simple principle like network neutrality relevant for regulating technology? Is the infrastructure visible?

These thoughts inspired me as editor of Netopia – Forum for the Digital Society to ask Ralf Grötker, the author of this report, to take a different approach. What if we don’t start by looking at technology and its impact? What if we instead look at what we want to achieve – pluralism, freedom of expression, public participation – and then ask how this impacts technology? Would we then arrive at completely different solutions? The answer to that question is yes. The answer to those solutions is this report. I hope you will find it as inspiring as I have.

Download the full report in English here.

Download the full report in German here.

The launch event on replay here.

Per Strömbäck
Editor Netopia