Net Neutrality: What is it, and should we have it in Australia?

Why Net Neutrality Should Not Be Introduced In Australia

Should Australia adopt net neutrality? First, let’s consider some factors against net neutrality in Australia:

  • Australia, despite having a strong economy and high standards of living, has one of the slowest broadband internet speeds compared to our friends in Asia, Europe and the US
  • Historically, Australia has had no net neutrality laws.
  • The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) limits the power of any Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can have, preventing monopolies from having too much influence, and giving the consumers the freedom of choice.

And some reasons for net neutrality in Australia:

  • Cable and phone companies repeatedly violated net neutrality in the US, and telecommunications companies in Australia might follow suit.
  • Having net neutrality laws would protect freedom of expression with the power of the written law.

After reviewing the pros and cons, it is my opinion that Australia should not have to adopt net neutrality laws for the immediate future.

What Is Net Neutrality?

Net neutrality is the principle that Internet service providers treat all data on the Internet equally, and not discriminate or charge differently by user, content, website, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or method of communication. (Gilroy, A., 2011)

Net Neutrality In History

The term “Network Neutrality” was coined in a research paper by Professor Tim Wu of Columbia University in 2003. While the term itself is relatively new, “net neutrality” is described as an extension to the concept of “common carriers” in the paper, which was extended to include electronics communications in the Communications Act of 1934, dating back to the early 20th century.

For Net Neutrality?

It is no secret that companies serve to appease its shareholders, and therefore cannot be relied on to act in the consumers’ interests. There have been many notable offences to net neutrality, such as Comcast interfering with BitTorrent traffic by either slowing down or blocking its usage completely, or MetroPCS, another US internet provider, announcing its plans to block all streaming services on their plans except YouTube. Thankfully, these violations were able to be rectified thanks to the then-existing net neutrality laws, enforced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

With the US abandoning its net neutrality laws, many foresee that anti-consumer practices like the ones listed above, will go unchecked by the government, leaving the consumers to suffer from the consequences of corporate greed.

Net Neutrality explained in the American context.

This struck worryingly close to home when in 2017, before net neutrality laws were repealed, Comcast issued a cease-and-desist order to a pro-net neutrality site ran by the non-profit “Fight for the Future”, claiming intellectual property violations. Evan Greer, campaign director of Fight for the Future, said that “If Ajit Pai’s [chairman of FCC] plan is enacted, there would be nothing preventing Comcast from simply blocking sites like Comcastroturf.com that are critical of their corporate policies.”

#NetNeutrality movement on Twitter, in late 2017.

Will Australia succumb to the same fate? While I argue that Australia does not need to adopt net neutrality laws, it would also be a safe bet to safeguard ourselves for the future, and to future-proof our legislation for when Australia (hopefully) catches up to the world in terms of technological development.

No Net Neutrality?

Australia, due to its large landmass and low population density (only 3.1 people per square km!), requires large amounts of costly, modern infrastructure to be built in order to provide faster internet access for everyone in the country. The National Broadband Network (NBN) budget was recently upped from its initial $49 billion estimate to a whopping $51 billion. That figure is comparable to, and surpasses many countries’ GDP.

Clearly then, Faster broadband internet access is still a pipe dream for many Australians, even to those living in densely populated, urban areas such as Sydney, such as myself. As I write this blog post, I am suffering from unstable connections, slow speeds, frequent disconnects, and still no NBN.

A dream for most Australians. (CC BY-SA)

Adopting net neutrality would mean, by definition, all data being transmitted in Australia would be treated equally. For example, data from heavy-usage applications such as YouTube or Netflix would be treated the same as any other data travelling on the network. While that sounds great in theory, with inadequate internet infrastructures in Australia, as discussed above, it would lead to peak-time congestions and delay in content delivery, if everybody is trying to access content on the internet all at the same time.

For example, you are trying to watch a YouTube video during a peak-time network congestion, while your friend sends an email to a distant relative. Your friend sends the email before you begin loading the video, so his email is queued before your YouTube video data. Since your friend’s email does not need to be sent immediately, he leaves to have a cup of tea and a snack, while you sit in frustration, waiting for your video to load, as you want to watch the video now.

Loading… (CC0 1.0)

Is that fair? You might say, no, as your YouTube video data is more urgent than his email, and therefore should have a higher priority than his email. But according to net neutrality, all data must be treated equally, with no priorisation.

A solution would be to prioritise different data from different applications. However, that would violate net neutrality, if it were implemented in Australia.

What’s more, although net neutrality has never existed in Australia, consumers are protected by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). The ACCC regulates a service that allows any telecommunications service providers to provide services “using another network provider’s equipment.”

“Declaring the [wholesale] ADSL service will lead to a more competitive retail sector which is likely to deliver greater choices for end users in the form of better prices, service quality and service options.” (Cifuentes, C. 2017)

In other words, if BigEvilCo. built the infrastructure that provides internet to your premises, other service providers can use that infrastructure as well, so you are not forced to use BigEvilCo’s services, and instead have the freedom of choice from all competing service providers.

How It Affects The Ordinary Australian Consumer

Not having net neutrality in Australia… really isn’t that big of a deal, as I see it. The Australian technological landscape has survived and prospered without net neutrality for the past 20 years. Throwing net neutrality in the mix is not going to change anything, and might even damage the progress we have made up to this point.

Unmetered streaming apps. (Optus)

Currently, service providers advertise plans with “unmetered content”, where usage of some select apps or websites do not count against the user’s quota. While this violates the principle of net neutrality, for the ordinary Australian consumer, it is only beneficial to them.

“Discriminatory pricing in the form of unmetered content is more a consumer bonus than an imposition of someone else’s choice.” (Schaffarczyk, K. 2014)

With adequate protection for the Australian consumer, is enacting net neutrality really required to further extend that protection? Personally, I do not think it is necessary. Instead, we should be focusing on bringing faster internet to Australians, to catch up to the world in a big way.

Conclusion

Australia does not need to adopt net neutrality, although good arguments can be made from either for or against. The status quo is neither harmful nor detrimental to the ordinary Australian consumer, even without net neutrality.

We can draw a worrying parallel to the situation in the US, where monopolies organised by large telecommunications companies seemingly run rampant and unregulated. However, that is not the case in the Australian context.

Additionally, the current network infrastructure in Australia is simply incapable of passing large amounts of data indiscriminately, and if net neutrality were to be implemented into law, it would only worsen the situation.

Therefore, until Australia catches up to the rest of the world, and the technological landscape matures, net neutrality should not be adopted.

 

References

Gilroy, Angele A. (March 11, 2011). Access to Broadband Networks: The Net Neutrality Debate (Report). DIANE Publishing.

Greer, E. (May 23, 2017). Comcast tries to censor pro-net neutrality website calling for investigation of fake FCC comments potentially funded by cable lobby. Retrieved from https://www.fightforthefuture.org/news/2017-05-23-comcast-tries-to-censor-pro-net-neutrality-website/

Schaffarczyk, K. (January 29, 2014) Australia’s net neutrality lesson for the US. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/australias-net-neutrality-lesson-for-the-us-22245

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Chun Lau

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Timothy Lau
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