As the Internet has grown, and become more lucrative, this has sharpened the ongoing debate about the foundational principle of network neutrality. The core idea behind this principle is that intermediaries should not favour discriminate against the transmission of certain types of Internet traffic. There are several reasons why net neutrality is fundamentally important, including that it promotes free competition and that it limits the ability of private intermediaries to control online speech and debates.
The Internet and the way it is used are constantly changing and there is no single and immutable rule for how networks should be managed. However, policies and technical protocols for managing Internet traffic should aim to improve the functioning of the Internet for all users, rather than favouring traffic from or to users who pay a premium or have preferential or partnership arrangements.
A particularly contentious aspect of the net neutrality debate concerns zero rating projects, which provide cheap or free access to the Internet but only give access to a limited range of services. Although it can be argued that the harm inherent in zero rating schemes is outweighed by their benefit in bringing new people online, the onus is on intermediaries proposing or running zero rating schemes to demonstrate that these programmes are clearly more effective in terms of bringing people online than other access schemes which respect net neutrality, and that the benefits are significant enough to justify making compromises to the principle of net neutrality.
Recommendations for Private Sector Online Intermediaries:
Supporting Net Neutrality:
- Internet access providers should respect the principle of net neutrality, even when they are not required to do so by law. Among other things, this implies:
- There should be no discrimination in the treatment of traffic across their networks and systems.
- Their traffic management policies and technical protocols should be designed to promote objective traffic management goals.
- Internet access providers should be transparent about the traffic or information management policies and practices they employ, and provide detailed statistical information about how traffic and information is actually handled.
- Intermediaries should support and promote the idea of network neutrality and, at a minimum, never lobby against law reforms to the extent that those reforms promote this goal.
Net Neutrality and Expanding Access:
- Programmes to expand access to the Internet which offer a trade off in terms of services or connectivity should be designed in an open, non-exclusive, transparent manner which respects net neutrality and the right of users to choose what material they wish to access. For such programmes, the goal of giving the access provider a competitive advantage should not undermine the broader goal of connectivity.
- Programmes to expand access that employ zero rating (i.e. that provide free access to certain select applications or services) should be avoided unless it can be demonstrated clearly that these are significantly more effective than similar programmes which do not offend against net neutrality. Access providers which offer such programmes should make available information about their effectiveness for purposes of independent verification.