Workspaces:Intermediaries' changing environment/Net neutrality

The Network Neutrality Debate: Implications for Developing Countries

Jeremy Shtern, Ryerson University- Toronto, Canada

Why is network neutrality important in maintaining equitable access to information? The concept of network neutrality is fluid and controversial, so the answer depends greatly on your perspective. What is clear is that we should not expect that the network neutrality issue as framed in the Global North around democratic access debates will map neatly onto the situation in developing countries. In particular, it is important to recognize that current debates over network neutrality tend to respond to markets defined by the actions of incumbent cable and telecommunication firms and refer primarily to technical issues that arise from the interconnection of computers by fixed-line telecommunications infrastructure. The network neutrality debate in the Global South however, will likely be centred on the openness (or lack thereof) of the internet service provided by wireless companies and the ability of internet users to access information over their mobile phones. This article will attempt to unpackage some of the dimensions of the concept of network neutrality and consider these and other implications of the debate over it for developing countries.

1. Network Traffic Shaping (or Traffic Management)

Data is sent across networks in packets, regardless of whether the data being transmitted are email messages or audio or video files. Traffic on a network is said to be "shaped" or "managed" when criteria are established to have the network treat certain packets of data differently than others. For instance:

  • Traffic can be shaped so that certain data is delayed getting to its destination. This is often called "throttling" and data might be throttled based on the nature of its content. For example, transmission of large audio and video files might be delayed in order to preserve finite bandwidth availability during periods of high demand. Data might also be "throttled" in order to enforce tiered service plans, allowing customers who pay a premium for elite service to be guaranteed a certain degree of performance.
  • Traffic can also be shaped so that certain data is "blocked" prevented from getting to its destination at all. Networks can be managed in a way that allows operators to inspect packets and intercept categories of data that network operators deem to be undesirable.
  • Traffic can also be shaped to prioritize certain sources of content. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can throttle or block content that comes from a competing content producer's website, or even from the websites of companies that are not willing to pay a service fee in order to have their content prioritized.

It is argued that some form of pragmatic traffic management allows ISPs to maximize the efficiency with which finite bandwidth capacity is used and to curtail the use of their networks for illegal activities such as copyright infringement through peer-to-peer file sharing. The case has also been made that there is no such thing as a neutral network.

2. Network Neutrality

Network neutrality is a normative critique of traffic shaping that implies that networks should be designed and managed to treat all data equally, to be neutral as to the source and content of data when routing its transmission. Calls for network neutrality can have multiple dimensions including:

  • Internet Law and Governance: Calls for network neutrality have formed the basis of activism in the law and policy sphere through calls for the enactment of legislation that prevents throttling, blocking and other non-neutral behaviours on the part of ISPs, or at least limits and indentifies the conditions under which non-neutral behaviours are allowable.

In turn, there are a series of overlapping rationales used as the basis of support for network neutrality including consumer and user rights and market and competition fairness. Most fundamentally, network neutrality is linked to the realization of freedom of expression and access to information in that a neutral network denies ISPs the ability to block data transmission based on the source or content of the message.

3. The Global Debate

Internet traffic shaping legislation has been considered and/or adopted by a series of OECD country governments including: Norway, the US, and Canada (see also overview/analysis). Arguing that “because internet connectivity does not conform to national borders” , Milton Mueller, a leading academic expert in the field of internet governance, suggests that “net neutrality is really a globally applicable principle that can guide Internet governance”.

Various intergovernmental organizations including the OECD (see here) and the UN Internet Governance Forum (IGF) are also considering traffic management and network neutrality issues. The IGF in particular, devoted workshops at both its 2008 and 2009 meetings to consideration of the implications of the debate for network neutrality on developing countries. The conclusion voiced in the 2008 workshop’s report that there was no compelling information presented that might be used to determine “whether ‘neutral networks’ would hurt or help the prospects of developing countries” is a telling one.

4. Implications for Developing Countries

The Case for Traffic Shaping: The argument could be made that traffic shaping provides a method for maximizing the limited existing connectivity infrastructure in many developing countries, increasing network performance and capacities. In particular, life-critical applications important to entire communities, medical imagining, emergency communications, information required to support educational and economic activities in remote areas etc. could take precedence over the personal communications of individuals where band-with capacity is an issue and thus, traffic shaping could contribute to development and quality of life in fundamental respects.

The Case for Network Neutrality: Given the extent of the dominance on the internet of Western languages as well as forms and artefacts of knowledge, existing barriers such as language and cultural context already function to wall-off many citizens of non-Western countries from much of the knowledge available through the internet. Allowing ISPs the freedom to create "walled gardens" by shaping internet traffic so that only the content of their business partners remains accessible risks the creation of a second degree of exclusion. Furthermore, economic justifications for traffic shaping might be used by certain governments to restrict or prioritize access to information and to certain types of information resulting in obstructions of citizens rights to access to information, freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

5. Ghana: A Case Study in the Realities of Network Neutrality in the Developing World

In Ghana, 4.3% of the population are what the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) defines as ‘internet users’ and 0.1% of the population have broadband service subscriptions. In Ghana, as in much of the developing world, most people have yet to log on to the internet. According to the World Bank, an internet connection costs, on average, 20% of monthly income in developing countries. But, in a country with a population of just less than 24 million, more than 11.5 million Ghanaians had mobile phones by 2008. Mobile phones, and not computers connected by landlines, are likely to provide the infrastructure most Ghanaians use to connect to the internet for the first time.

Questions should be asked about how the issue of network neutrality as it is currently understood will map onto a wireless network over which internet access is a secondary tenant to mobile phone service. In contrast to the situation in most OECD countries wherein the interests of cable companies and telcos tend to dominate the network neutrality debate, mobile phone service providers are emerging as powerful incumbent market leaders in Ghana. In other words, the network neutrality discussions that have been convened by communication regulatory agencies in OECD countries such as Canada and Norway are hardly the same conversation that would be held in Ghana.

Furthermore, the capacity of Ghana’s regulator, the National Communications Authority (NCA) to devise, monitor and enforce the sort of highly technical and potentially hands-on and invasive regulations implied by calls for network neutrality law is more clear. Recently, for instance, controversy emerged when it was discovered that the NCA was reluctant to enact legislation obliging mobile phone providers to assure number portability. Based largely on misinformation supplied by certain mobile phone companies themselves, the NCA had concluded that it would be too difficult to regulate number portability. In other words, these mobile service providers have established the ability to influence government policy and the Ghanaian civil service and regulatory staff seem to lack the resources, political capital and specialist knowledge to question the data supplied to them by incumbent firms. The question of regulating network neutrality is undeniably magnitudes more complex, technical and involved than that of mobile phone number portability.

6. Conclusions

What does this brief discussion suggest about the implications of the network neutrality debate for developing countries?

  • It suggests the need to expand consideration of network traffic shaping practices to include mobile phones and other forms of connectivity.
  • It suggests the need to recognize the limited utility to the developing world of the various national policy frameworks that exist in OECD countries and to accept that the concept of network neutrality- as it is currently framed- may be too specific to a developed world context to function as an effective normative pillar of internet regulation in the developing world.
  • It suggests the need to reflect on and broaden the debate and to push forward the nascent discussion of the global internet governance implications of network neutrality.

Above all, it suggests that fundamental normative principles such as the universal rights to free expression and to knowledge and information are perhaps best disaggregated from the debate of network neutrality. By associating such fundamental principles with an issue that many developing countries can feasibly claim to lack the regulatory capacity to enforce, we run the risk of not only overburdening the issue of network neutrality, but of diminishing the standing of our most fundamental universal human rights. Freedom of speech, and of the press and access to information are not just local internet policy issues, they are political and cultural universal human rights that governments must prioritize on the internet as everywhere.

Further reading

...a series of hyperlinks to potentially useful scholarly and policy references are embedded in the text above. See also the literature review found online in Tim Wu’s Net Neutrality FAQs and, in particular, the following references:

Perspectives and Overviews on Network Neutrality

Lemley, Mark and Lessig, Lawrence. (2000). The End of End-to-End: Preserving the

Architecture of the Internet in the Broadband Era. UC Berkeley Law & Econ Research Paper No. 2000-19; Stanford Law & Economics Olin Working Paper No. 207; UC Berkeley Public Law Research Paper No. 37 .

McIver, William Jr. (2010- Spring). Internet. in Raboy, Marc and Shtern,

Jeremy, Media Divides: Communication Rights and the Right to Communicate in Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Wu, Tim. (2006). Why You Should Care About Network Neutrality: The Future of the Internet Depends on it!. Slate Magazine, May 1, 2006.

ICT Policy in Ghana and the Global South

Alhassan, Amin. (2007). Broken Promises in Ghana’s Telecom Sector. Media

Development Vol. LIV 3/2007.

Souter, David (ed). (2009). The APC ICT Policy Handbook (2nd Edition). The

Association for Progressive Communications.

MacLean, Don et al. (2002). Louder Voices. Panos London and the Commonwealth

Telecommunications Organization.

Wireless Communication Markets and Regulation

Wu, Tim .(2007). Wireless Carterfone. International Journal of Communication, Vol. 1. ''(p. 389).

Author Bio

Jeremy Shtern is postdoctoral fellow in the Faculty of Communication and Design at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada.

My research interests focus on the intersection of globalization, digital technologies and communication governance. I have followed the debate over global internet governance since 2002 and am co-author (with Marc Raboy) of Media Divides: Communication Rights and the Right to Communicate in Canada (UBC Press: spring 2010). I must acknowledge the influence that collaboration with Bill McIver of the National Research Council of Canada on the Media Divides project has had on my understanding of network neutrality and that a series of discussions with Amin Alhassan of York University has had on the contents of this article.