Matheus Rosa and Victor Vieira
In April 23 of 2014, Law no. 12.965, popularly known as Civil Rights Framework for the Internet, was sanctioned by president Dilma Rousseff. Amongst the provisions in the Civil Rights Framework, the one that provoked most debates, without a doubt, was net neutrality.
What is net neutrality?
Net neutrality is a simple concept, albeit with a wide range of interpretations and applications. Net neutrality holds forth that access providers (such as Net, GVT, Oi and Velox) should not differentiate nor prioritize data packages, treating them equally. The provider must treat such packages without giving priority to any website or app.
For instance, a provider couldn’t allocate more bandwidth to YouTube than Vimeo due to a hypothetical contract between the former and the provider itself. Besides, in accordance with the concept of net neutrality, providers can’t offer plans with specific content, such as a data package that offers access to e-mail or social networks only, in a similar fashion to cable TV, in which the user pays for a variety of content (channels).
It’s important to highlight that offering different bandwidth for different prices is not against net neutrality. It doesn’t matter whether the connection is faster or slower, as there is no differentiation content-wise.
Practices such as Quality of Service (QoS), in which the technical administrators of the network make specific adjustments in order to guarantee a better functioning of the Internet through data traffic management, also aren’t considered violations to the net neutrality. That happens because QoS doesn’t differentiate content (where and who it came from), only the nature of the package.
In that way, for example, it prioritizes data packages concerning videos (it doesn’t matter whether they’re from YouTube or Vimeo) over e-mail packages, since the quality of video services depends much more on a constant package flux than e-mail communication does. A delay as long as half a second compromises a video, but not an e-mail.
That’s why total net neutrality can still be considered a utopia, since it’s impossible for access providers to treat all data in the same way, considering there’s no infrastructure for that.
There are at least three ways to differentiate a specific content or application on the Internet: blocking it, reducing its speed or charging a different price for the access of such thing.
In the first case, blocking is done usually in countries under dictatorial regimes, like China and North Korea for instance, which prevent their citizens from accessing content considered unsuitable. Speed reduction, on the other hand, is used by providers in order to render useless services that are considered competitors, such as Skype, which substitutes expensive international calls for the consumer.
The specific charge for different services, on the other hand, is noticeable in cell phone plans in Brazil. The Tim WhatsApp model, for example, offers users a free of charge access to WhatsApp and Facebook, theoretically violating net neutrality by permitting the user to access only a given specific content. This practice is called zero-rating and is currently the target of an intense debate regarding its legitimacy, as despite violating net neutrality, it’s also an effective tool in digital inclusion and access expansion.
In the Civil Rights Framework for the Internet, net neutrality is granted by article 9, with items further detailing potential exceptions. This article depends on a decree that will regulate the net neutrality practice in more detail, assuring legal security. This decree is currently undergoing a public query.
The importance of net neutrality
Communication networks can be built over an open architecture (end-to-end) or over a closed architecture (core-centered). An example of closed architecture there is television, in which only specific companies choose the content the user will consume. Even though it is possible to change the channel, consumers cannot influence directly what they see. On the other hand, an example of open architecture is the Internet itself, which was based on an end-to-end architecture since its very origin, allowing for a greater interaction between the user and the content providers.
With net neutrality, consumers have total access to the Internet, searching for information, culture and entertainment through various sites. If they were offered services with a restricted navigation, as some companies wish, they’d be limited to the sites offered by their access provider’s plans. Without net neutrality, alienating the users becomes easier, since they’d only navigate according to the interests of the companies to which they’re signed.
Besides, the biggest example of the importance of net neutrality is the rise of startups (recently created companies, usually with Internet-related services). In an open architecture communication network such as the Internet, any person with an idea and programming knowledge can release a smartphone app. Net neutrality guarantees that there is no such thing as a conglomerate of companies guiding the interests of the industry and consumers. Without the interference of companies, market is able to carry out its most basic concepts: offer and demand. Good apps mean bigger demand and, consequently, a bigger and wealthier company.
Telecommunication giants have been battling against neutrality because they envision a reduction of their own interference on market management and consumer choice.
Problems generated by net neutrality
It’s a fact that there is no concrete structure in the world to allow for a “total” net neutrality. Many access providers have already declared that they violate net neutrality due to not having the necessary structure for treating all data equally. Besides, many companies argue that the neutrality disrupts the market since it doesn’t allow clients to pick services packages with the sites they access the most, elevating the average cost of services and making it difficult for the portion of society which can’t afford a plain connection service.
Net neutrality controversy on Brazil
As previously mentioned, net neutrality was the most controversial point of the Civil Rights Framework for the Internet. The then leader of the Chamber, Eduardo Cunha, was the main objector to the project, affirming: “first we’re voting for the rejection of the Civil Rights Framework; if it doesn’t happen, we’ll discuss the amendment”.
Representing big telecommunication companies, Eduardo Cunha and his party (PMDB) battled against net neutrality. According to the Eduardo Cunha’s website, the “amendment presented by Eduardo Cunha excludes the Internet services from the general rule of neutrality and allows data package contracts to apply specific conditions to whomever might want a differentiated content – be it social networking, videos, etc”.
Cunha even stated that “[they] want to ‘communize’ the Internet, obliging providers to offer the infrastructure in an unlimited way to any traffic size with an equal price to all. Namely, the consumers pay what they don’t use for others to do so. Is that neutrality? No one is thinking about the poor consumer. It would be the same as allowing an unlimited use of energy and charging the same for everyone. People who used air conditioners and electric showers would pay the same as those with affordable housing”. Noticeably, Eduardo Cunha mistook the speed offered by the access providers for the equal treatment of data.
Net neutrality in the US and Europe
In the United States, the Federal Communications Comission (FCC) approved, in 2015, new rules regarding net neutrality. In short, FCC’s decision is similar to the provisions in the Civil Rights Framework, with the main points being:
- Access providers can’t block the access to applications, content and services, except if these are illegal or harmful to the network’s safety;
- Access providers can’t differentiate or downgrade data traffic based on specific criteria such as the type of content, application or service;
- Access providers can’t prioritize the traffic of a given application over the traffic of another, even if an application pays for such thing.
The European Parliament, in turn, approved in 2014 a legislation ensuring net neutrality. In essence, this legislation doesn’t differ much from the Brazilian one, neither from the North-American, and guarantees equal treatment in data transportation by access providers. Just like the Civil Rights Framework, the European legislation also presents exceptions for certain situations: cyber-attacks, congested traffic and legal orders are exceptional situations that allow for the violation of net neutrality on the continent.