Comment: Global battlelines being drawn on net neutrality
Should Eircom be allowed to charge Arnotts for better customer website access than Dunnes Stores gets? Should UPC be allowed to do deals with RTE that guarantee Irish UPC users get better streaming of RTE content than TV3 content?
This is a legal debate that's currently happening. Not between the specific companies mentioned, but at a wider industry level. It's called 'net neutrality'. And what happens in the next few months could decide whether Irish businesses have to start paying operators for 'unfettered' website access by their own customers.
It's worth recapping what net neutrality actually is. At present, there's a general industry agreement that broadband providers can't 'sell' better internet access quality to one company over another.
This is considered to be a great leveller. It means that the little guy – such as the startup or the SME – has a fair chance of making it online without having to have an extra budget to grease broadband operators' palms.
But there's growing pressure from telecom operators on governments and regulators to be allowed to charge companies for 'premium' treatment on their network. They need this new ability, they say, to pay for the massive rise in 'content' passing through their pipes.
In the last year alone, for example, the amount of internet traffic has doubled on Irish broadband networks, according to bodies such as INEX, which connects Irish operators to backhaul fibre providers. The rise of services such as Netflix, which now has around 200,000 Irish subscriptions, is largely behind this traffic boom.
So operators now say their infrastructure needs to be upgraded faster and faster. They say that firms such as Google (YouTube), Netflix and Facebook are getting a free ride on their coattails.
What companies like Eircom, UPC, BT and others now want is the ability to start charging companies for 'guaranteed' access to their sites by their own customers. They say that not getting that ability will threaten future investment in the networks.
The battle over this issue is taking place behind industry lobby doors, in regulators' offices and in European legislative buildings. Last month, the European Parliament voted to 'protect' net neutrality in a wide-ranging piece of legislation dealing with several telecoms issues.
"The principle of net neutrality means that traffic should be treated equally, without discrimination, restriction or interference, independent of the sender, receiver, type, content, device, service or application," says the proposed regulation. It's quite a strong statement.
But that putative law now must go before the European Council Of Ministers to be approved. That means that operators (and 'content companies' such as Google and Facebook) have between now and then to lobby national governments on the issue.
What is Ireland's position? Officially, we don't yet have one. Two weeks ago, I put the question to the Minister Of Communications, Pat Rabbitte. He told me that the government doesn't yet have a firm view on the issue.
But campaigners for the retention of net neutrality, such as senior European parliamentarian Jan Albrecht, don't think Ireland is a relative threat to net neutrality.
"Actually, it is not Ireland that is most likely to interrupt what the European Parliament has done here," Albrecht told me on a recent visit to Dublin. "Opposition could come more from countries where operators are very big players, such as Spain with Telefonica."
Ireland, indeed, could have more to gain by appeasing locally-established giant 'content' companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and LinkedIn. These firms say that they are against any dilution of net neutrality, as it is precisely these companies who would probably have to pay most if operators are allowed to start charging high-traffic websites extra.
If Europe has so far expressed a preference against diluting net neutrality, the US is heading in the opposite direction.
There, regulators are starting to give a nod to broadband providers and internet companies who want to do deals that guarantee "premium" streaming access. For example, last month Netflix agreed to cough up money to the cable broadband provider Comcast to "improve" the streaming quality of its movies on the broadband connections of Comcast customers. (Netflix says that it did this out of protest and that it didn't really have much choice.)
This is now what European operators are looking at enviously. If they have to bear the infrastructural cost burden of a two-fold increase in traffic because of services such as Netflix, why is it that Netflix contributes nothing to this extra cost burden?
The US Federal Communications Commission, which is as close to a regulatory body as you can get on this issue, recently said that some tweaks in service levels are actually permissable. In other words, perhaps it is okay to treat some internet 'packets' differently to others.
This is the drift that European web campaigners will be anxious to combat. The draft European regulation would seem to be a decent shot at it. But will European governments, including Ireland's, ratify it?
An idiot's guide to net neutrality
What it is: The system by which operators aren’t allowed to discriminate between traffic to one website over another. In other words,
Eircom can’t engineer it so that your competitor’s website gets smoother treatment on its network than your website, even if your competitor offers to slip Eircom a few quid for the advantage.
Who’s in favour of it: Small businesses, start-ups, internet activists, academics. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, credited with inventing the web, recently called it one of the most important issues facing the web’s infrastructure.
Who’s against it: Virtually every telecoms operator, as it prevents them exploring additional revenue streams. At a time of critically declining revenues for them, they feel that extra cash could come from charging companies for ‘unfettered’ access to their websites from customers.