Tag Archives: websites

Net neutrality – what is it and why should we be concerned about it?

(Image c/o Maik on Flickr.)

What is net neutrality?

Net neutrality is the principle that all packets of data over the internet should be transmitted equally, without discrimination. So, for example, net neutrality ensures that your blog can be accessed just as quickly as, say the BBC website. Essentially, it prevents ISPs from discriminating between sites, organisations etc whereby those with the deepest pockets can pay to get in the fast lane, whilst the rest have to contend with the slow lane. Instead, every website is treated equally, preventing the big names from delivering their data faster than a small independent online service. This ensures that no one organisation can deliver their data any quicker than anyone else, enabling a fair and open playing field that encourages innovation and diversity in the range of information material online. The principles of net neutrality are effectively the reason why we have a (reasonably) diverse online space that enables anyone to create a website and reach a large volume of people.

Isn’t this mainly a US issue?

The issue has been a major topic for debate in the United States for sometime now. In theory, this was recently resolved when the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) recently voted to protect the principle of net neutrality. However, this has not closed the debate as some US broadband providers have launched a legal challenge against this ruling and Republicans in Congress have launched an attempt to fast-track a repeal of the FCC’s new rules.

Why should we in Europe be concerned if this is a US issue?

Whilst there has been little public debate in the UK or Europe around the issue of net neutrality, it is becoming an increasingly important issue. Earlier this year, the Latvian government (currently holding the European presidency) proposed that there should be exceptions to net neutrality rules, particularly when their networks face “exceptional…congestion”.

In March, a majority of EU Member States voted in favour of changing the rules to bar discrimination in internet access but, crucially, the rule changes would allow the prioritisation of some “specialised” services that required high quality internet access to function. This was reinforced by the Chief Executive of Nokia who argued that some technologies (such as self-driving cars) will be hindered so long as providers have to abide by net neutrality principles.

The current situation in the EU makes an interesting comparison to the FCC ruling, as it has been argued that the EU is heading in exactly the opposite direction to the FCCs strong position on net neutrality. It’s unclear at this stage what impact the FCC ruling will have on the EU’s position. The difficulty in the EU is that the legislative process is more complex in the US, due partly to the number of countries and bodies involved. Furthermore, because there are many countries and many telecoms CEOs, there is much stronger lobbying against the legislation.

A recent report by Web Index found a mixed bag when it comes to net neutrality regulations across the EU. The report noted that whilst the Netherlands scored eight out of a possible ten for net neutrality, countries such as Italy and Poland scored only 2. In a blog post for the European Commission, Tim Berners Lee argued that binding net neutrality rules would “raise the bar for the performance of lower ranking countries, ultimately enabling Europe to harvest the full potential of the open Internet as a driver for economic growth and social progress”.

Will regulation solve the problem?

Whilst tighter regulation can help to oblige telecoms companies to adhere to the principles of net neutrality, it doesn’t mean to say that the problem will be eliminated. As with all laws, their existence does not eradicate an issue, it merely minimises it. For example, the Authority for Consumers and Markets in the Netherlands recently fined the country’s two largest operators, KPN and Vodafone, for blocking services and zero-rating data for subscribers to HBO. It’s clear that violations will continue to occur, but arguably there will be fewer once regulation is in place.

Who opposes net neutrality?

A range of large companies oppose net neutrality, including: Nokia (see above), Panasonic, Ericsson, IBM and CISCO amongst others.

Who supports net neutrality?

Article 19, Greenpeace, Twitter,  Microsoft (although Microsoft argue that “traffic should not be subject to unreasonable discrimination by their broadband provider” – it’s unclear what they mean by “unreasonable”), Etsy, Amazon, Facebook and, of course, the founder of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee.

What about Google?

Google have been largely quiet publicly when it comes to the net neutrality debate in recent years, although they had previously been very vocal on the issue and have lobbied the FCC in the past.

Why should I care about net neutrality?

Net neutrality ensures that we have an internet that enables the broadest possible range of views. By ensuring a level playing field, it ensures that no one perspective dominates the internet. If companies are able to ensure their data travels on the fast lane, then we can be sure that those companies will dominate the landscape because their sites transfer data quickly and efficiently. This will ultimately lead to a narrowing down of sites as people avoid using services where data travels in the slow lane, in favour of those that travel in the fast lane. Big companies will get bigger, small companies will disappear and new companies will not get off the ground without significant sums of money to enable them to compete. The internet thrives on innovation and an abandonment of these principles would seriously impede innovation.

We have also seen in other forms of media what occurs when regulation is too lax. We see in print and broadcast media a decline in media plurality. Certain media outlets have come to dominate the landscape with ownership of popular print and broadcast media. An abandonment of net neutrality rules could lead to the very same decline online. The internet will be dominated by a very few large corporations who provide the vast majority of the content. This is, of course, bad news for those that use the internet and bad news for democracy as a vibrant democracy relies on media plurality to ensure a well-informed electorate.

Where can I find out more about net neutrality?

The digital rights campaigning organisation Open Rights Group keeps a close eye on developments and often posts updates regarding developments on net neutrality in the UK. Article 19 is also a good source of information regarding the issue. As is Index on Censorship. A number of organisations (including Article 19 and Index on Censorship) are also members of the Global Net Neutrality Coalition – you can find details of all involved on their website. Web Index, produced by the World Wide Web Foundation, measures the World Wide Web’s “contribution to social, economic and political progress in countries across the world” and produces an annual report that has recently added net neutrality to the list of measures it assesses. American readers can also defend the principles of net neutrality through the Battle for the Net campaign

If you would like to write for Informed, about net neutrality, the internet or any issue related to the information sector, please get in touch with your ideas via our contact page here.

Web filtering and the dangerous impact on users

Web filters impose highly inconsistent blocks.
(Image c/o mayhem on Flickr.)

The following is a comment piece by a contributor who has asked to remain anonymous, on how suggested introduction of web filtering software can and will impact upon practice.

In July 2013, David Cameron announced that he wanted filters against online porn turned on by default on the internet connections of all UK households. The impact of this proposal has been analysed in depth by many experts, all with more expertise than me, so I’m not going to rehash their explanations. What I am going to do is look at how these controls might work in practice.

I work as an Information Officer in a public body. In this role, I may be asked to research any topic which is either of current interest to my employer, or which is likely to become so in future. My employer is also obliged due to its position to impose a rather more draconian control on online resources than I have been used to in previous employment in the private and higher education sectors. The filter being used in my workplace is also highly inconsistent in its blocking actions, as the proposed filters are predicted to be.

Here are some of the most regularly encountered examples of sites and materials which are blocked in my workplace:

  • Social media such as Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest (but Twitter can be accessed via TweetDeck)
  • Photo hosting sites linked to Twitter (Twitpic, Instagram etc)
  • Weblogs (but only those from certain providers: Blogger is blocked but WordPress is fine)
  • Videos (certain ones: Youtube is blocked, but not Vimeo)
  • Audio files such as podcasts (BBC etc)
  • Presentation sites (Slideshare is blocked, but not Prezi)
  • MOOCs such as Coursera
  • Link shorteners (is.gd, bit.ly etc)
  • Microsoft help pages (don’t ask me why – attempting to access these actually gives a message saying “Your internet access has been revoked”!)

Certain sites can be accessed (in a wonky/stripped format), but due to the filter blocking some images the actual login button doesn’t exist, or an essential action button, which effectively adds them to an unofficial block list. The filter often doesn’t say that a page is blocked, it just gives a “this web page is not available” message, and when the “More” button is clicked, the options given are “This web page might be temporarily down or it may have moved permanently to a new web address”. When first encountered this message leads to confusion, and leads users to spending time checking with other people both internally and external to the company to see if they can access the page, or if there are network problems preventing internet access.

In my daily work I create internal briefings of relevant professional news, which are required in order to keep users informed about important developments in their specific work areas. Due to the filter, these briefings can only refer to text materials: any information delivered by non-textual methods cannot be accessed, and Twitter accounts which may be providing relevant information are blocked. With the shift by many bodies and companies away from providing RSS feeds, and towards using Twitter as an official information source, large amounts of information are becoming inaccessible to the users of my service.

Nonetheless, I try and monitor sources providing information via Twitter, and I currently manage to avoid the Twitter block by accessing it via a Tweetdeck extension on the Chrome browser. Once on TweetDeck, I skim for relevant information. If my contacts provide information via a link, Twitter/TweetDeck automatically shortens it…but of course, link shorteners are blocked by the filter. To view a link provided via Twitter, I must:

  • Click on the link provided on Twitter
  • Get an Access Blocked page
  • Copy the link displayed on the block page
  • Open longurl.org
  • Paste the link in, and hit submit
  • Click on the lengthened link displayed, to visit the page

This is not an efficient or reasonable way of working to source information, but it’s currently the only option possible for me within this filtering environment.

The blocks imposed are also highly inconsistent, with page categorisations changing by the day. This means that I can never be sure that a resource I access one day will be accessible the next day, or vice versa.

So, that’s what it’s like trying to work and provide an effective information service within a heavily filtered environment. It’s a struggle, with lots of time wasted trying to circumvent blocks that are imposed without enough thought about how they will impact on users. My ability to help my users is hampered, in a myriad of small but nonetheless important and time-consuming ways. My users are being blocked from accessing information sources, whether they realise it or not, and they may not have either the time or the ability to circumvent these blocks. Each individual user is the best judge of what materials they may need to inform their work, not an automated filtering system, but if those individuals can’t see the full range of information available, how can they decide whether it’s useful or not?

Many schools and universities will already have similar filters put in place to “protect” their students. As you can see though, in reality the filters are not effectively protecting anyone. Instead, what they actually do is make reliable and regular access to information and information sources complicated, or even impossible. It means that those who have to work within the current filtering system actually need more support for their online needs than those working outside it, to assist them in finding ways of accessing the resources they need, in a way which the filtering software deems acceptable. A schoolchild trying to use the internet for homework research will be blocked from accessing or using relevant resources, and the development of their knowledge and understanding may suffer. Adults without advanced internet skills will be confronted with “alert” block screens for what they may have felt to be innocuous search terms: for those who have limited computer skills, this can be a serious blow to their confidence online, and discourage them from using online resources in future.

Sometimes however, there’s no method or tool to use to get around the filtering limits. Some sites are just…unavailable. Entirely. This is online censorship, and in this context, it is state-imposed censorship. I can think of a few countries in which state imposed censorship is the default position, and they are not countries where the population could be considered to be well informed, or fully engaged in the political process. In light of a developing belief that the right to access the internet without unreasonable restriction is now a core human right, any move to restrict that access in any way is a massive backwards step for any government.