Network Neutrality: from Architecture to Norms

23 October 2013 - A Workshop on Internet Governance Principles in Bali, Indonesia

Agenda

During the last decade, an intense debate has flourished around the concept of Network Neutrality (NN). Such notion has been interpreted as an Internet design principle, as a policy priority and as normative principle according to which electronic communication networks shall carry data flows in a neutral fashion regardless of their nature, their content or the identity of their sender or recipient.

The NN notion is grounded in the end-to-end principle whereby the Internet is a general-purpose network whose intelligence resides in the edges (RFC 1958). Accordingly, end-users shall be able to enjoy an open and neutral network which allows them to control the applications and to freely choose the devices they use; to enjoy maximum access to online content, application and services; and to easily circulate their innovations.

However, the majority of telecommunications operator frequently adopts traffic-management technique which may aim at blocking, filtering and throttling different data flows in order prioritise or impede the access to specific applications, services or content.

Certain traffic-management techniques may determine anti-competitive behaviours and the mere self-regulation may prove insufficient to maintain the open and neutral character of the Internet.

Furthermore, it is right and proper to query to which extent traffic-management techniques may affect end-users right to freely impart and receive information and ideas through the Internet. Indeed, non-neutral traffic management may lead to the establishment of  “walled gardens” limiting access to content, applications and services as well as internet users' access to knowledge. 

As it has been highlighted by the European Data Protection Supervisor, if traffic management policies “became common practice and it was not possible (or highly expensive) for users to have access to an open Internet, this would jeopardise access to information and user's ability to send and receive the content they want using the applications or services of their choice” (EDPS 2011).

Such a scenario suggests the need to disclose traffic-management policies in a transparent and intelligible fashion in order to increase internet users’ choice and awareness.

Moreover, concerns have been growing around network operators’ utilisation of intrusive techniques, such as Deep Packet Inspection (DPI), in order to identify the content and applications which they intend to prioritise, throttle or block. Indeed, the exploitation of such intrusive techniques hold promise to provoke nefarious consequences on internet users’ privacy.

For these reasons, several governments have decided to enshrine network neutrality into specific legislation (e.g. Chile, the Netherlands and Slovenia) or policies (e.g. Norway and South Korea), or are currently scrutinising such an option.

After having elucidated the main features and current trends of the NN debate, the panellists will engage in an interactive discussion aimed at involving all the participants in the analysis of whether - or when - governmental intervention could or should be applied in order to promote network neutrality