Three-D Issue 29: European silence on the US decision to end net neutrality

After reneging on the Paris Climate Agreement, withdrawing from UNESCO and recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the support of Trump for ending the fundamental principle of net neutrality almost seems futile and a side issue, except it is not. Some 6 years ago I called net neutrality the first amendment of the internet. In a blog post on the LSE’s media policy project, I argued that just as freedom of speech is not absolute, neither is net neutrality. Of course, there are instances where the core-idea of ‘all bits are equal’ can and should be compromised somewhat in the context of network management. For example, in situations of crisis, we can all understand that certain bits (for example those relevant to emergency workers) need to get preference over and above other bits. We could even all agree that data which is geared towards streaming might get a slight differential treatment from email data which can reach its destination a tad later. However, these practical and sensible differentiations cannot deter from the overall principle that all bits should be treated as equal as possible and that net neutrality as a principle should stand and be adhered to, again just as freedom of speech is in a democracy. The irony here is that many of the companies that are advocating an end to this first amendment of the internet have in many ways profited from the level playing field that net neutrality creates.

Another tension in this regard is that the internet is a global infrastructure, but at the same time it is abundantly clear that the US sits firmly in the driving seat, not only in terms of the US based companies that dominate the global online space, but also in terms of governance and rule making. The 2003-2005 UN World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) tried to change this, but it blatantly failed. The Internet Governance Forum is the only tangible structure that emerged out of the WSIS, but this upcoming decision on net neutrality shows that the IGF was in fact a strategic distraction to avoid global oversight on internet governance, but also that the critiques fielded at the IGF for being a talking shop without real authority and clout proved to be right, unfortunately. In essence, the root file of the internet, as well as its regulation and governance as an infrastructure remains a US affair rather than a global one. Given this upcoming unilateral decision, I think this state of affairs is untenable in the long run.

What surprises me the most in this context is not that the US wants to get rid of net neutrality – parts of the US internet industry has been consistently lobbying for this for years, but that the EU and the European Parliament are so silent in this regard. Not that they would have much sway in changing Trump’s mind, but they could make a lot more fuss and noise about how unacceptable we think this is. Part of the problem here is that Europe, unlike China, has not been able to build a range of internet services that can be competitive with the US based services. There is no European Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google, Instagram, WhatsApp, Drop-Box, etc.

One of the paradigmatic changes Trump and the FCC want to achieve by getting rid of net neutrality is to counter and destroy Obama’s efforts to denote the internet infrastructure as a public utility, which of course it has always been from its inception. Given our strong public service tradition, ending the first amendment of the internet by the US should provide an impetus for European initiatives, preferably public and EU wide, to build and promote a range of public internet services which protect citizens’ privacy, do not commodify and sell us to advertisers and force, as much as is possible, the adherence to the core-principle of net neutrality within the EU when it comes to internet infrastructures and the services that run on them.

Posted by Einar Thorsen