Net Neutrality matters for human rights across the globe

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard the internet is the first technology allowing anyone to express themselves on a global stage, without first asking permission from a company or government. But this is only true when we prevent internet service providers (ISPs) from abusing their control of internet access to lock out any new businesses or ideas they find threatening.

The only way to maintain global internet freedom is to have global Net Neutrality, and the only way to have global Net Neutrality is to enact a quilt of enforceable policies that cover every one of the world’s more than 10,000 ISPs.

Access Now has been working towards global Net Neutrality since we were founded in 2009, and many of our international partners have been in the fight for even longer. We have helped secure Net Neutrality for hundreds of millions of people, but we still have a long way to go.

Over the past three years, we have seen hard-won victories on Net Neutrality come under threat. Activists in advanced economies are struggling to communicate the importance of Net Neutrality for free expression, innovation, and competition, in some cases to audiences that are increasingly anti-regulation. Many in developing countries are facing down critics who argue that non-neutral internet access somehow functions as an “on-ramp” for the free and open internet (even as new research bolsters the evidence that it does not).

Today in the U.S., activists are submitting final comments in a proceeding before the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that threatens to roll back the historic Open Internet Rules of 2014. At the same time, in India, which early last year took the laudable step of banning the controversial practice of “zero rating,” the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has just concluded the last of its “open house” discussions in its consultation on Net Neutrality, which is meant to put in place rules to prevent technical discrimination by gatekeeping telecom companies, such as blocking, throttling, or prioritization.

Below we tour three global “hot spots” in the struggle for Net Neutrality, principles that are essential for free expression in the digital age. We hope that wherever you hail from, if you value a free and open internet, you will get involved.

Net Neutrality in India: closer to the finish line

Over this summer and monsoon, Indians have eagerly awaited progress on establishing a comprehensive set of rules on Net Neutrality, a step that has been pending since 2015. The world’s largest democracy, with the second-most populous internet user base, India took a strong step forward in safeguarding Net Neutrality when it issued regulations in February 2016 to ban zero rating, the practice wherein ISPs give preferential treatment to selected services or applications, influencing the user experience and distorting competition.

Only a year before issuing those regulations, the TRAI had published a consultation paper on licensing internet services and applications (under the garb of troubling “OTT” regulation), and had been skeptical of protecting Net Neutrality. This remarkable turn-around was a product of unprecedented public mobilization in favor of protecting a free and open internet. No fewer than 1.2 million Indians wrote to the TRAI asking them to #SaveTheInternet and this triggered widespread public support for action to legally protect Net Neutrality.

Since then, however, the regulatory process has been running at a slow, deliberative pace. The TRAI acted on earlier promises to advance its Net Neutrality regulatory consultative process by first issuing a pre-consultation paper on the topic in May 2016 and finally publishing the full consultation paper in January 2017. Comments and counter-comments to this consultation concluded officially in April 2017, and beginning in mid-summer, the TRAI has been organizing in-person open house discussion meetings, hosted across India’s financial, tech, and political hub cities of Mumbai, Bengaluru, and Delhi.

Telecom industry lobbyists have been seeking to sway the TRAI away from the demand by Indian citizens for clear, impactful Net Neutrality rules, as well as lobbying to roll back TRAI’s landmark February 2016 differential data pricing rules. With the conclusion of the last open house discussion in Delhi today, TRAI Chairman R.S. Sharma has indicated that it is seeking to deliver an outcome towards the end of September.

At stake here is ensuring that at the end of the process, there are clear, binding regulations to prevent telecom companies from unjustly blocking, throttling, or prioritizing internet content to favor their interests, rather than serving those of their current users and the next billion people coming online to the internet.

Net Neutrality in Europe: the watchers of the law

In Brussels, lawmakers adopted rules to implement Net Neutrality in October 2015. Since then, BEREC —  the E.U. regulators — has further clarified the rules, and this has served largely to reinforce users’ rights. Yet some uncertainties remain, in particular on the issue of zero rating. BEREC is currently consulting the public to establish clear technical criteria to monitor implementation of Net Neutrality rules across all member states.  

In short, this means that the situation in the E.U. is largely positive, but not quite perfect. Back in 2016, BEREC decided, unwisely in our view, not to ban zero rating altogether. BEREC settled upon a case by case approach, wherein telecoms regulators assess whether each zero rating offer complies with Net Neutrality rules. This has already led to a foreseeable — and harmful —  patchwork of interpretation by telcos. This is an issue that must be addressed to stop this form of abuse from taking root in the E.U. market and jeopardizing Net Neutrality in Europe.

Net Neutrality in the United States: Winter is coming

The fight for Net Neutrality is incredibly contentious in the U.S., where the FCC, now under the control of Chairman Ajit Pai, seems committed to rolling back the rules passed in 2014. The U.S. had previously set a positive example for the rest of the world when it passed bright line rules to protect Net Neutrality. These rules are at now risk.

Access Now and about 22 million others submitted comments to the FCC on its new rollback proposal; in our comment we push not only to maintain but also to strengthen the 2014 rules. Today the FCC closes a second round of “reply comments” on Chairman Pai’s plan and we’re working with partners and allies to make sure they hear the demands from people in the U.S. and around the world.

Global warning: zero rating is on the rise

The issue of zero rating has been at the core of Net Neutrality discussions across the globe, and it’s not going away anytime soon. Through these discriminatory practices, internet users are offered free or prioritized access to some, but not all, of the internet, resulting in unequal access. All around the world, telecoms and tech companies are pushing zero-rated services, sometimes marketing them as a first gateway to get more people online. While giving more people access to the free and open internet is a laudable goal, zero rating has largely failed to deliver on that promise. Instead, it has increased the risks for human rights violations.

Zero rating limits the number of platforms and websites through which we can easily communicate and access information. It gives operators incentives to scrutinize our data traffic in order to discover which content, apps, and services are the most popular, and then to strike deals for prioritization. This in turn makes surveillance and censorship much easier, as the data flows through only a limited number of easily identifiable channels. Research into the use of zero rating offers shows that services like Facebook’s “Free Basics” are a pathway to consolidate market power and that a different, more intrusive, data policy applies when using social media through these services. Worryingly, a study from GSMA showed that people often conflate Facebook with the internet.

A more recent study by Global Voices — funded through Access Now Grants — provides additional evidence that zero-rated programs like Free Basics do not bring new users online, but instead accomplish what can be described as “digital colonialism.” Deploying discriminatory services is not the right way to increase access to the internet, since it also increases the risks for human rights. Instead, those seeking to expand access to the internet should invest in, or create incentives for investing in, infrastructure. That way, we ensure that everyone can benefit from the free and open internet, which can act both as a vehicle for the enjoyment of human rights and a spur to innovation and development globally (helping us to reach the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals).  

We’re in this together. Join us!

The battle to protect Net Neutrality never sleeps. Access Now and our partners will keep fighting, country by country, for a free and open internet. If we work together for strong Net Neutrality rules across the globe, we could see a world where the internet delivers on its promise for all of us, not just the privileged few.

To stay updated on Net Neutrality globally, you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter, and sign up for our newsletter and action alerts. We’ll keep you posted on what happens next and let you know what you can do to help.