Net neutrality is an issue that has received plenty of attention in the wake of its repeal in the United States. According to DeNardis (2014), net neutrality refers to the prevention of discrimination by Internet service providers (ISPs) regarding content, protocols and web sites; as a result, net neutrality rules would provide customers with unfettered and unrestricted access to the internet, provided they adhere to existing laws. In other words, the government forces ISPs to recognize all data on the Internet as the same and not to adjust or restrict service to the end user. Australia is one of a handful of countries that does not enforce net neutrality, but it has been an issue of debate as net neutrality would essentially guarantee equal access to the internet. In this essay, I will argue that although net neutrality provisions convey many benefits, it is currently unnecessary to implement such provisions in Australia, primarily due to established government policies regarding ISPs. However, changing circumstances in the future may well lead to the adoption of net neutrality in Australia.
Discussions on net neutrality and early precedents involving restricting access to the internet by ISPs have existed since the early 2000s. In 2010, Chile became the first country to pass net neutrality laws, as a means to prevent corporations such as Facebook from offering free services and thus appearing as all the internet has to offer. Since then, many countries have followed suit, but the current debate is focused on the United States where the issue remains contentious. The following site provides a short timeline of the history of net neutrality in the United States: https://www.wired.com/amp-stories/net-neutrality-timeline/
The recent repeal of net neutrality regulations in the US has led to a number of consequences, both positive and negative. The following paragraphs will discuss these consequences and use the issue of net neutrality in the US as a model in relation to whether Australia should consider adopting net neutrality rules. Below is a summary of pros and cons of net neutrality, specifically for the US.
Summary of pros and cons of net neutrality. Datacenter Clarity LC. All rights reserved.
The repeal of net neutrality rules in the US effectively means that ISPs have the power to slow or completely block access to content on the web, as well as charging users based on the content they view. Introducing net neutrality rules to Australian legislation would prevent ISPs from utilizing these tactics against their customers. As explained by Daly (2015), ISPs always maintain an interest in blocking or throttling content i.e. slowing down internet speeds. This is especially the case when the content is associated with a rival ISP or simply if the content not affiliated with the ISP in question at all.
A central concept regarding telecommunication companies is their categorization as ‘common carriers’, which prevents these companies from discriminating against customers based on the identity of the customer or what they say (DeNardis, 2014). However, without the provisions of net neutrality, this does not apply to digital data, allowing ISPs to block content from certain users and essentially enacting censorship over the internet. An example was a request by NARAL Pro-Choice America to Verizon that involved implementing a program that allowed supporters of NARAL to receive notifications via text messages. Verizon blocked the request on the grounds of the content being ‘controversial or unsavory’, but reversed this decision after a public backlash (DeNardis, 2014). This happened before the enactment and subsequent repeal of net neutrality laws in the US, but shows what may happen when there are no regulations protecting users.
The Universal Service Obligation (USO) held by Telstra, due to their former status as the national telecommunications provider, ensures that telephone services are ‘reasonably accessible to all people in Australia on an equitable basis, wherever they work or live’. With the implementation of net neutrality, the USO may be extended to digital data and may also ensure that there is no discrimination against any of the people in Australia. This can be seen as an effective starting point to implement net neutrality rules in Australia.
Arguments for the repeal of net neutrality in the US put forward the elimination of government regulation of ISPs, which would encourage investment and lead to growth in the sector. This would theoretically translate to faster and more reliable service on behalf of the ISPs and overall cheaper rates in the long term. However, in Australia, ISPs already face strict government regulation regarding their relationship with consumers.
Endres (2009) suggests that net neutrality would be largely unnecessary in Australia due to existing policies which enforce competition between ISPs and incentivize fair behaviour from the ISPs. He argues that these policies ensure that internet access in Australia is ‘neutral’ in every regard but name. Competition between the ISPs is regulated by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, which ensures that ISPs cannot collude with each other to engage in anti-consumer practices. By blocking content or treating customers unfairly, an individual ISP risks falling behind their competition, as opposed to ISPs in the US which can mitigate this deterrence by acting against consumers in unison. The low barriers to entry into the ISP sector mean that there were 419 ISPs operating in Australia in 2013, of which 9 have more than 100,000 subscribers, giving customers plenty of choice if they were dissatisfied with their current ISP (Gharakheili, 2017).
The ACCC as an independent authority of the Australian government. Scott Lewis. Some rights reserved.
In addition, the widespread adoption of volumetric pricing in Australia provides better incentives for ISPs to maximise the transmission of all network traffic. Volumetric pricing involves the customer paying for access to the internet at a predetermined speed with a predetermined download allowance. Upon exceeding their allowance, a customer will either have to deal with reduced speeds or pay additional fees. The transparency between the ISP and the customer allows the ISP to self-regulate and act in the best interests of the customer, making it unlikely for them to participate in behaviour that runs contrary to the principles defined in the concept of net neutrality, i.e. they do not benefit by restricting or blocking access to the internet.
Another argument against the implementation of net neutrality in Australia is that it already exists in the form of ‘unmetered’ or ‘zero-rating’ content. ‘Unmetered’ content refers to content that is provided to end users by the ISPs free of charge; thus, at least with this specific content, ISPs cannot discriminate against their customers regardless of how much data they use (Gharakheili, 2017). This is only possible when the Content Service Providers (CSPs) enter a deal with the ISPs to provide their content to end users for free. The most notable example of unmetered content is a deal between Netflix and Optus and iiNet, which allowed customers of these ISPs to view content from Netflix at no additional cost (Mason, 2015). However, the deal was undermined by the effective elimination of data caps by many Australian ISPs through the introduction of unlimited data plans. This makes net neutrality rules seem even more unnecessary given that ISPs have even less reason to discriminate against their customers.
Overall, the introduction of net neutrality to Australia would establish concrete guidelines for ISPs to follow, namely preventing them from restricting or blocking access to the internet to users as well as preventing them from filtering the user created content based on the user’s identity or the nature of the content, provided all content falls in line with existing laws. However, current government regulation ensures strong competition between ISPs, with incentives from the relationship between ISPs and consumers giving ISPs less reason to discriminate against users compared to their counterparts in the US. Additionally, implementing net neutrality in Australia may cause it to conflict with the existing rules and regulations concerning ISPs which already fulfil a similar purpose. Unlike in the US, which had numerous precedents before net neutrality was eventually implemented, there are relatively few cases concerning Australian ISPs that would provide cause for concern. As a result, the introduction of net neutrality to Australia is not a particularly pressing issue in the present, but may be considered in the future.
Consumer Advice. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.telstra.com.au/consumer-advice/customer-service/universal-service-obligation
Daly, A. (2015). Net Neutrality in Australia: The Debate Continues, But No Policy in Sight. Net Neutrality Compendium, 141–155. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-26425-7_12
DeNardis, L. (2014). The global war for internet governance. Yale University Press. 131-152. doi:10.12987/yale/9780300181357.001.0001
Endres, J. (2009). Net neutrality–how relevant is it to Australia. Telecommunications Journal of Australia, 59(2), 22-1.
Face Off in Chile: Net Neutrality v. Human Right to Facebook & Wikipedia. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://techpresident.com/news/wegov/25090/face-chile-net-neutrality-v-human-right-facebook-wikipedia
Gharakheili, H. H. (2017). Perspectives on net neutrality and Internet fast-lanes. In The Role of SDN in Broadband Networks (5-22). Springer, Singapore.
Lewis, S. (2014). ACCC Complaints. Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/99781513@N04/15201903060
Mason, M. (2015). Netflix regrets signing unmetered deals with iiNet, Optus. Retrieved from https://www.smh.com.au/business/companies/netflix-regrets-signing-unmetered-deals-with-iinet-optus-20150416-1mm754.html
Shepardson, D. (2018). U.S. ‘net neutrality’ rules will expire on June 11: FCC. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-internet/u-s-net-neutrality-rules-will-end-on-june-11-fcc-idUSKBN1IB1UN
Menzefricke, T. (2018). What Net Neutrality means for Data Centers. Retrieved from https://datacenter.mayahtt.com/net-neutrality-means-data-centers/