Eamon Ryan: Net neutrality is now in very real danger
We need to protect net neutrality. For 25 years, the internet has provided an open space where people share digital content in a way that is transforming the world for the better.
That openness is protected by a principle of 'net neutrality', which means that other than any outlawed material, all traffic on the network is treated on an equal basis.
But this idea – championed by such pioneers as web creator Tim Berners-Lee – is now under real threat.
For example, the largest US cable company, Comcast, has recently done a deal where it will receive payments from Netflix, which now accounts for almost 30pc of the traffic on the internet. It seems that Apple is also talking about paying for a 'last-mile' priority service for video material with the same company.
Such deals threaten to create a two-tier internet, where big companies pay for an elite delivery service, while everyone else crowds on to a slower public internet.
Net neutrality is important for all of us. It basically sets out that those providing internet services have an obligation to insure all 'end-points' in the network can connect to all other 'end-points' as quickly as possible.
Such access has allowed all sorts of innovations to take place as people manage and share information in new and unexpected ways. It also gives start-ups and small businesses a fighting chance of a level playing field when competing against giant corporations on the web.
Unfortunately, the freedom that allowed for this information revolution is now in danger. Companies providing broadband are now looking to differentiate the way they treat various content, with a view to creating new commercial opportunities. The largest US mobile company, Verizon, is challenging the right of the US government to regulate for net neutrality.
The US Federal Communications Commission, which is responsible for regulating American telecommunications companies, is fighting a rearguard action in response to a series of court cases.
To make things more complicated, the whole issue has become one more battleground between the US political right and the left as to the extent and role of any government intervention.
In Europe, the Communications Commissioner Neelie Kroes has taken a consistent and progressive line on the issue.
But there is a real fear that we could see some rowing back from that stance.
The European Parliament will today debate new legislation, which is designed to reduce data roaming charges and to guarantee an open internet. It sets in law the principle that internet service providers cannot block or slow down the delivery of specific content.
However, a real concern has arisen around a loophole that could allow the telecommunications industry to fundamentally change the character of the internet.
The legislation allows an exemption to the openness principle for what are called 'specialised services' such as internet television (IPTV) and "business-critical data intensive cloud applications".
There would be no problem if they were carried on private networks but the real fear is that these special 'end to end' services will end up being subject to the same commercial deals that are now being introduced in America and that they will lead to a deterioration in service for everyone else.
A number of parties in the European Parliament are opposed to the measure and are putting forward amendments that would enshrine a more specific definition of net neutrality in the text. They have defined the principle "that all internet traffic is treated equally, without discrimination, restriction or interference, independent of its sender, receiver, type, content, device, service or application".
They also want to make sure that any new, enhanced-quality service is not detrimental to the quality of internet access and that traffic management measures should not discriminate between competing services and applications.
Whatever is passed in the Parliament will then have to go to the Council of Ministers before being finally agreed.
There is a real fear that because Europe has very few internet companies of scale – but has several of the world's biggest telecommunications companies – this battle to protect 'net neutrality' may be lost.
For 25 years, the internet has thrived by putting citizens and consumers first. It would be a shame if we started switching to a more hierarchical, corporate commercial network, which would shut down the very innovation and enterprise that the current system brings.
Watch out for how the vote goes today and what happens then in the Council of Ministers. The future of the internet is at stake.
- Eamon Ryan is the leader of the Green Party and a former Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources