Net neutrality: the end of the free Internet?

Editor’s note: Benedetta is a French 3rd year student (equivalent to fourth form in the English Grammar-School system) who spent a week at Visionary Marketing as an intern to discover the world of business. As part of this internship, I asked her to use her linguistic abilities (she is Italian and speaks three languages ​​fluently) to build an overview of net neutrality through the Italian, English and French-speaking press in Europe. In spite of her young age- she is only 14 years old- Benedetta showed a great maturity and her analysis of this extremely complex subject of free internet is relevant and pertinent. So, I decided to publish this article for the benefit of our readers.

As the United States is one of the most powerful countries in the world, the question whether Trump government’s decision on the Internet will affect Europe and the rest of the world is a fascinating one to look at. I have looked into how net neutrality is approached in different countries, namely France, Great Britain, Italy, Belgium and Switzerland.

What is net neutrality?

What will happen tomorrow to the Internet we know today?

Net neutrality ensures that all traffic on the Internet is treated in the same way, so that Internet service providers do not act with favoritism over content that passes through their “pipes” [i.e., physical (telecom) networks]. Blogs and newspapers have been focusing on this topic since the Trump administration decided to remove this neutrality in the United States. Le Figaro even called it “Christmas gifts to telecom giants”.

But why?

This decision has indeed favored the interests of ISPs (Internet Service Providers) such as Verizon, AT & T and Sprint. Since December 14, 2017, US Internet service providers have the right to encourage the traffic of companies that have the means to pay and leave all others on a slow lane, thus creating a two-speed network. Verizon has stated, however, that it will not use this right.

Small businesses and startups that cannot afford to pay may be at a disadvantage and perhaps even be crushed by powerful multibillion dollar industries, because there is no longer any freedom to compete. In case a similar decision is made by the authorities in Europe, it would result in an increase in subscription rates of online services like Netflix.

Should net neutrality disappear, ISPs would potentially be able to control what we read as Internet users, since they would be able to choose the content before making it available to us. The Swiss newspaper Le Temps has called this “a potential for censorship”. But censorship is directly related to freedom of speech, and if expression over the Internet is restricted, there will be no more freedom of speech. What will happen tomorrow to the Internet that we know today?

Everyday, our opinions are shaped by the Internet, through the information it provides us. If someone has the power to control the content we read, he also has the power to manipulate us.

How aware of net neutrality are Europeans?

Net neutrality
With the removal of net neutrality, ISPs would potentially be able to control what we read as Internet users.

What is the level of awareness of Europeans vis-à-vis these developments in net neutrality? A BEREC (Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communication) study based on statistics from four European countries (Sweden, Croatia, Greece and the Czech Republic) has shown that the citizens of our continent are not very familiar with this subject. This is probably because the issue is rather underestimated by users and maybe even ignored by them.

Various governments have taken preliminary legislations to safeguard the neutrality of the network.

In France, such neutrality is protected by a European law transposed into the law for a digital Republic. In addition, ARCEP (Regulator for Electronic Communications and Post) is responsible for ensuring its implementation.

In Italy, the former President of the Chamber of Deputies, Laura Boldrini, defined the abolition of net neutrality in the United States as a “serious” fact. Italy also has enacted an Internet Bill of Rights since 2015, which includes 14 articles. The newspaper La Stampa wrote that this battle will be long, but that it will be the American citizens who will suffer its immediate consequences.

In Belgium, BIPT (Belgian Institute for Postal Services and Telecommunications) has been responsible for monitoring compliance with Internet rules, and has stated that “there are no serious grounds for concern in Belgium in terms of access to an open Internet ”

In Switzerland, Balthasar Glättli expressed in an interview with the Swiss newspaper ‘24 Heures’ in 2013, his feeling of anchoring the net neutrality in the law, saying that the neutrality was already violated for 20% of the users.

The BBC explained that changes in the United States will not directly affect users outside of this country. Nonetheless, it will highlight the philosophical differences between the American and the European ways of dealing with digital rights. Great Britain is not afraid of these changes, thanks to the European laws created in 2016. “We will have to remain vigilant so that the rules of the net neutrality are not altered after the Brexit”, declares Johnson-Williams.

A debate initiated in America

Net neutrality is a founding principle of the Internet since the 1990s; but none of it has ever been communicated to people. The Obama administration in 2005 had begun to make resolutions to highlight the concept of network neutrality. Obama’s successor, Donald Trump has decided to reject the work initiated by his predecessor.

Net neutrality
US Internet Service Providers have the right to favor the trafficking of businesses that can afford to pay and leave all others on a slow lane.

That’s why Ajit Pai, FCC and former director at Verizon, made the decision on December 14, 2017 to remove the neutrality that governments around the world had fought so hard for. However, Les Echos  reports that because of this decision, he has received some heavy threats.

Indeed, we must not forget that the debate for the neutrality of the network of networks is not a recent thing. In 2008, a book entitled “The Future of the Internet and how to stop it”, was written by Jonathan Zittrain in relation to this argument. Although it’s 10 years old, it’s tackling an issue which may sound quite ‘hot’ at present.

At the end of the day, one question remains: should we fear to see the Internet disappear? European governments have sought to protect themselves from possible influences from the United States by enacting laws for the most part. The level of awareness and knowledge of Europeans on this subject is extremely low. Most of the time, local newspapers say that Pai’s action should not have any negative consequences for Europe, and we can deduce that the Europeans consider themselves immune, but it is only a guess.

To understand better why the Internet was created at the very beginning, we would need to dissect the protocol WWW, which is the abbreviation for “World Wide Web”. It’s clear that Internet is a network that connects the whole world, and as such, it is for the common good of all mankind. How long will we be able to preserve it, in view of such a weak understanding of our peoples to the importance of its neutrality?

Benedetta Reschini

Benedetta is a 14 year-old college girl who will soon be attending high school. She is from the city of Bologna in Italy and she arrived in France in 2014. She did her third internship in the company Visionary Marketing and had the opportunity to write an article on Net Neutrality.

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