Understanding the Net neutrality debate: Listening to stakeholders
First Monday

Understanding the Net neutrality debate: Listening to stakeholders by Alexander Ly, Bertrum H. MacDonald, and Sandra Toze



Abstract
The Internet is increasingly seen as integral to economic progress and prosperity. Yet how the Internet will be managed as it grows and diversifies remains a hotly contested topic, as the debate on net neutrality demonstrates. Whether the Internet is neutral or not has serious implications for Internet service providers (ISPs), businesses operating online, governments, and civil society. With these stakeholders and varying interests at play, the debate about net neutrality is often characterized in terms of polar positions, and the discussion has seemed intransigent and ongoing with an uncertain end point. To increase understanding about the debate, this paper combines a review of the literature on net neutrality with evidence from interviews with four individuals, each representing the viewpoint of a major stakeholder group in Canada. Analysis of the similarities and differences among key stakeholder positions shows that in fact the positions are more complex and considerably more nuanced than typically depicted. By focussing on components of the issues, and staying away from the politics of contesting net neutrality, progress in the debate can be made. While this paper gives attention to the Canadian context in particular, the findings echo those of international organizations, and adds to the global conversation on the future of the Internet.

Contents

1. Introduction
2. Methodology
3. Results
4. Discussion
5. Conclusion

 


 

Introduction

In today’s knowledge–based, global economy, the Internet plays a pivotal role not just as a platform, but as a catalyst for innovation, financial growth, and democracy. Recognizing this increasingly critical role, the Organisation for Economic Co–operation and Development (OECD) convened a Ministerial Meeting on The Future of the Internet Economy in 2008, which resulted in the Seoul Declaration for the Future of the Internet (OECD, 2008). The signatory nations agreed that further expansion of the Internet was essential for economic growth and prosperity, and believed that this development would also encourage the free flow of information and expression, which is indispensable in a democratic society. Earlier in the decade, the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) brought multi–stakeholder groups together in several meetings to examine Internet governance. Still, critical components of the Internet economy, its infrastructure and governance that currently allow for a free and open Internet, are still very much in flux (Singel, 2011; Katz, 2012). The Internet developed as an open, unregulated environment, which is widely accessible, but as traffic and content has increased the ability to maintain unfettered openness is questioned. Although, it is generally agreed that the Internet is critically important to the economies and lives of all countries and people, nevertheless, a sure sense of how the Internet should be managed has not yet emerged. The range of opinions, beliefs, and strategies guiding the future of the Internet economy can be clearly seen in the ongoing debate about net neutrality.

For almost a decade, the concept of net neutrality, a network design principle which states “that a maximally useful public information network aspires to treat all content, sites, and platforms equally” (Wu, n.d.), has been at the centre of contentious Internet policy debates in North America (Barrett, et al., 2010; Geist, 2007; Genachowski, 2009; Harpham, 2010; Holy, 2010; Kang, 2010; Lasar, 2010a, 2010b; McDowell, 2010; Novak, 2010; Schatz, 2010; Webster, 2010; Wu and Yoo, 2007) and Europe (European Commission, 2011; 2010a; 2010b). Globally, only two countries have enshrined net neutrality into law: Chile was the first, in June 2010, followed by the Netherlands in June 2011. Recently, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) published net neutrality rules which came into effect on 20 November 2011 (FCC, 2011).

Within North America, the debate is highly contested. In Canada, for example, the Internet Service Provider (ISP) market is one of the most concentrated in the world (Geist, 2011), seemingly creating an environment for very divided stakeholder positions. Due to the global nature of the Internet, the consequences of policy decisions in a country such as Canada are relevant beyond Canadian borders.

This paper focuses primarily on the net neutrality landscape in Canada and shows how an examination of the perspectives of Internet service providers, businesses, governments, and civil society can lead to a more informed discussion of the debate. While frequently these groups have tried to assert both their positions on net neutrality and their views about an appropriate future for the Internet, the controversial and complex nature of the debate means that progress towards reaching a consensus has been slow.

The paper combines a review of the literature on net neutrality with evidence from interviews with four individuals, each representing the viewpoint of a major stakeholder group in Canada. The literature review revealed that ISPs, business, civil society, and governments present divergent and overlapping viewpoints on an appropriate future for the Internet. However, since the picture about stakeholder positions arising from the literature alone is incomplete and does not allow drawing any substantial conclusions on how a workable middle ground among stakeholder groups could be achieved, interviews were conducted to elaborate on existing literature.

When integrated with the literature review, the findings from the interviews show that the divide among stakeholder groups is not as wide as the literature implies, as more similarities than differences are apparent among the stakeholder groups. Furthermore, the interviews suggest that the issue of net neutrality can be addressed in a step–by–step, practical manner. By unbundling net neutrality into components as opposed to addressing it as a single overarching concept, progress can be made on reaching appreciation and possibly consensus among stakeholder positions as well as developing appropriate public policies. While individual countries have different regulatory frameworks, the global nature of the Internet means that lessons from Canada may be relevant to other countries, which are also in the middle of a net neutrality debate and attempting to determine how the Internet should be governed in the future.

 

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2. Methodology

2.1. Overview

To increase understanding of how the views of the various stakeholders might be reconciled, a comprehensive literature review was carried out and a qualitative study was designed. The review examined stakeholder positions on net neutrality documented in the news and social media, as well as in academic and government documents. Based on this review, a semi–structured interview protocol was created and four participants were recruited, representing each of the key stakeholder groups. The interviews were transcribed and systematically coded using thematic analysis (Dey, 1993; Ryan and Bernard, 2003).

2.2. Literature review

The literature review proceeded through two phases. First, popular sources such as current news articles, blogs, and Web sites were examined to gain an appreciation of the positions on net neutrality and the arguments put forth, and to gain a general understanding of the topic. The second phase of the literature review took a deeper look into the literature by systematically surveying academic journals, conference proceedings, technical papers, and regulatory decisions over the past decade to 1 January 2011 (and more selectively recently).

2.3. Interviews

Based on the literature review, interview questions were developed to elicit thoughts on the main points of contention on net neutrality and opinions on how the interests of all stakeholder groups could be balanced to move the debate forward (see Appendix).

Participants were specifically targeted and recruited based on the stakeholder categories: ISPs, Business, Civil Society, and Government. Names of potential interviewees were generated from contacts known to the authors, from those who had been quoted in the press regarding net neutrality, and from lists of applicants to the Canadian Radio–Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), the telecommunications and broadcasting regulatory body for the Government of Canada. No attempt was made to be comprehensive; the aim was to select a representative from each group for this study. Names were ranked based on their prominence and sampling convenience. Following ethics approval, e–mail messages were sent to the top four individuals to explain the goal of the research and to invite their participation. All four — Lee Bragg, Victor Wollesen, Michael Geist, and Stephan Meyer — agreed to participate and be identified.

Lee Bragg, Co–CEO of the telecommunications company Eastlink, was selected based on his role with a large ISP and is considered a voice for ISPs in this study. Victor Wollesen is a research head at Per Vices Corporation, a consulting firm based in Toronto. His name emerged from his applications to the CRTC, and he represents online businesses, which have a vital interest in the issue of net neutrality. Dr. Michael Geist is a Canada Research Chair in Internet and E–Commerce Law at the University of Ottawa and an internationally syndicated columnist on technology law issues. He was recruited based on his expertise, his participation in the net neutrality debate in Canada, and his role as an advocate for civil society. He represents the voice of civil society in this study. Stephan Meyer, the fourth participant, who represents the government voice, is the Manager at the Network Evolution Policy — Convergence Policy, Policy Development and Research Branch at the CRTC. This branch is directly involved in Internet policy related issues, and Meyer played a specific role in developing the CRTC Telecom Decision 2009–657 [1].

Once the participants agreed to participate, they were sent copies of the consent form to formalize the arrangement. Semi–structured interviews conducted over the phone or in person by one of the researchers were approximately 30–40 minutes, closely following the questions in the interview protocol. Follow–up probes were used as necessary. The interviews were audio–recorded, and then transcribed. The thematic coding was systematic, and proceeded in stages until consensus was reached. Transcribed interviews were first analyzed at the sentence level. Codes were generated for each sentence to reflect the main content. Once agreement at the sentence level was reached, the researchers analyzed the themes directly, to understand the patterns and relationships between them. The analysis included examining the relationships within each participant’s response to each question, between participant responses for each question, and overall themes in responses across all questions and participants.

 

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3. Results

3.1. Literature review

Four key stakeholder groups typically come to the fore in the net neutrality debate. Each group has competing as well as similar vested interests in the Internet. As a result, progress in reaching a middle ground in the discussion is particularly difficult because of many issues and numerous contesting viewpoints on an appropriate future of the Internet. Figure 1 illustrates some of the interests that each stakeholder brings to the table.

 

Stakeholders in the net neutrality debate
Figure 1: Stakeholders in the net neutrality debate.

 

Changing Internet user behaviour

Due to the pace of online innovation, a significant shift from low bandwidth and high latency applications (which do not depend on rapid data transfer) to predominantly high bandwidth and low latency activities (e.g., video downloading and video gaming) has occurred. Even though a change is evident in how users exploit their Internet connection, ISPs often classify those who take advantage of bandwidth intensive applications, for example peer–to–peer applications, as “excessive” users (Harpham, 2009). In contrast, users tend to frame their use of such applications as an acceptable use of the Internet (Harpham, 2009). Hence, consumers see discriminatory traffic management practices as a way of dictating how they can make use of the Internet.

One of the defining factors of the Internet for civil society has always been diversity and the freedom of choice. If ISPs begin to take more of a hand in controlling what people do online, that is, move away from the principle of net neutrality, the fundamental open access principle that has made the Internet a success is undermined (Economist, 2010). When this move happens, members of the civil society stakeholder group believe a shift is needed in the way they are perceived by ISPs (Geist, 2005).

Recently, the Internet has begun to play a greater role in political spheres in terms of soliciting election campaign donations, disseminating information about political parties and candidates, and mobilizing volunteers (Peha, 2007). Bandwidth intensive services like YouTube increasingly play a decisive role in political expression because of their “ability to easily spread and share information with others,” [2] at very minimal cost. If permitted to interfere with traffic, ISPs could make applications and services unreliable to users and frustrate their access to particular content (Newman, 2008). In other words, the rise in consumer reliance on more bandwidth intensive products represents a fundamental change in how people are participating in the public sphere. Thus, moving away from open access, i.e., from net neutrality, has the potential effect of saying that engaging in political discourse will be limited to the financially capable.

Due to the evolving nature of the Internet and consumer behavior in the online environment, bandwidth intensive and latency sensitive applications will likely become common in the future. As a consequence, a tiered Internet means that lower income citizens may be stuck with inferior service (Barratt and Shade, 2007). Some contend that without net neutrality, a new version of the digital divide will emerge as the Internet is segregated into a high–speed platform for those who can afford it and a “dirt track” for those who cannot (Faulhaber, 2007). Access tiering is an unsuitable and artificial way of dealing with increased network traffic.

Competition and innovation

Inevitably, online businesses also enter the debate to voice apprehension about the ISPs’ ability and incentive to disadvantage commerce due to their position as network owners. These businesses are concerned mainly with competition and innovation. Without net neutrality regulations, the state of the marketplace is uncertain and the dynamics of competition and innovation can be unfavorable to companies relying on access to the Internet.

The concern about competition relates to the ability of ISPs to unfairly demand higher fees from content providers in order to receive better service from content providers (Economist, 2010). The possibility of ISPs differentially charging content providers favors those with deeper pockets. For start–up companies, the higher fee for a faster connection becomes an obstacle to overcome because, at least initially these businesses typically have very small or non–existent revenue streams (Cheng, et al., 2011). Moreover, large companies like Google and Yahoo already pay sizeable fees to access the Internet from ISPs servers. Paying ISPs to gain access to both the Internet and customers is seen as “double dipping” on the part of ISPs because they are charging once for access to the network and then again for using the network (Faulhaber, 2007). Competition is distorted in this model. The company that is best able to negotiate with an ISP is the winner, not necessarily the best company in the marketplace on all other factors.

Another concern about competition is the possibility that ISPs will use their position as network operators to block, slow down, or speed up particular traffic. Should an ISP want to enter a market already dominated by another business, the ISP’s position as the network owner gives it the ability and incentive to control traffic of potential competitors and thereby give the ISP an advantage. An American example illustrates this scenario. Level 3 Communications, a central partner of Netflix, which helps Netflix deliver movies, has accused Comcast of imposing disadvantageous fees on Internet video companies. In 2011, Netflix was reported as the largest source of traffic online, accounting for 24.71 percent of online traffic in North America (Horn, 2011). This makes it a potential competitor to a cable distributor like Comcast. Level 3 Communications argued that Comcast charged fees in an attempt to protect its subscription cable television service and its own on–demand services from the competition presented by Netflix (Stelter, 2010). Consequently, for companies such as Netflix and Level 3 Communications, whose services compete directly with those offered by Comcast, the lack of net neutrality protection means ISPs have the ability to hinder competition unfairly.

Civil society representatives have also expressed some of the same concerns as business, particularly in regard to competition. In North America, bundling Internet access with telephone and television services means that delivery of residential broadband is limited to a small number of providers (Atkinson and Weiser, 2006; Economides, 2007). In Canada, five companies — Bell, Rogers, Shaw, Telus, and Videotron — control 96 percent of the market (Geist, 2011). When a handful of large corporations dominate the market, they have the ability and incentive to manage their networks to their own financial benefit (Anderson, 2008). The lack of broadband competitors in the Canadian ISP market, in contrast to Europe or Japan (Economist, 2010), means there is a risk of coordinated service pricing and cooperative degradation of traffic quality.

In France and Japan, net neutrality is not an issue because a line–sharing model is employed which allows multiple Digital Subscriber Line providers to use the same infrastructure (Atkinson and Weiser, 2006). Net neutrality debate is not apparent in these countries because of a greater level of competition in the ISP market (Atkinson and Weiser, 2006). In contrast, in Canada, if an ISP engages in discriminatory traffic practices, subscribers have limited alternative options for broadband access. Civil society representatives worry about this state of Internet accessibility and call for net neutrality as a protection against the lack of competition (Anderson, 2008).

Both civil society and business groups believe the Internet’s end–to–end principle and equal treatment of all digital packets, regardless of source and destination, are the primary drivers of innovation. Decentralization has been one of the key features of the Internet since its launch. There is no need “to get approval from any central authority to add a page or make a link” (Berners–Lee, 2010). Neither a gatekeeper nor approval is needed to participate in the online environment. Consequently, decentralization provides a milieu that is especially conducive to start–up companies and entrepreneurs because of minimal barriers to online entry. Net neutrality proponents believe it is businesses, which develop applications at the edge of the network that drive innovation (Wu and Yoo, 2007). In their view, the Internet’s innovative ecosystem quickly erodes without net neutrality.

When traffic discrimination occurs, an environment which is not conducive to ingenuity and investment is created because of the unpredictable nature of traffic manipulation. If success online is based on the ability of a company to pay a premium connection fee, the result is “a market where several large companies set the pace of innovation, not the challenges of competitors” [3]. Businesses begin to rethink their online strategies since success becomes more dependent on a relationship with an ISP and financial resources as opposed to originality and creativity. In contrast, when no product or service is arbitrarily favoured over others, decisions on which products or services will succeed “becomes a Darwinian subject, as only the fittest survives” [4]. Net neutrality preserves this principle and both business and civil society groups have presented strong reasons to maintain an environment where products compete equally with each other and success is based on the merits of innovation (Berners–Lee, 2010).

ISPs are businesses

In response to these views, ISPs, as owners of the networks, are quick to present counter arguments from a financial perspective stating they should be able to control and maintain their networks in any manner they wish. ISPs believe they should be able to recoup expensive investments in broadband networks by charging customers differently based on level of service and by seeking opportunities to obtain revenue from broadband intensive application, service, and content providers (Atkinson and Weiser, 2006). Ultimately, the business model adopted by ISPs involves large investments in networks, and as a consequence, the case is made that the ISPs should have the right to make independent decisions about the direction of their industry without interference.

Network congestion

Furthermore, traffic management is seen as a way of maintaining network performance. Of course, no traffic manipulation whatsoever on the part of ISPs means open access to all content, applications, and services. However, in practice total open access means a risk of bandwidth congestion during peak times (Ofcom, 2010). ISPs manage traffic for several reasons. High network congestion, disproportionate use of the total network capacity by a subset of users, and efficient use of the overall network capacity are justifications provided for traffic management (Ofcom, 2010). By strict adherence to net neutrality principles, consumers would actually suffer because of the slowed connection speeds due to network congestion.

ISPs contend that network management is applied not to create any sort of digital divide, but rather to ensure that the networks run at a level that meets the expectations of all of their users. As Litan and Singer note:

for the same reason as painting a stripe down the middle of a road to create two lanes is likely to speed all traffic (no driver is permitted to hog both lanes by driving down the middle), offering enhanced QoS [quality of service] to some content providers at a surcharge may even benefit content providers that decline the option. [5]

Exaggeration of ISP power

ISPs also note that the net neutrality proponents’ fear of monopoly power is an exaggerated conceptualization of the network provider market. For a company to have a monopoly, it must have substantial market power as opposed to just market power (Litan and Singer, 2007). As Douglas Hass has argued:

[Although] ... broadband providers undoubtedly have some market power to set prices, evidence shows that the market exhibits significant innovative flexibility and pricing power that falls well short of a monopoly. [6]

ISPs also point to a variety of competitors and service provider choices available to consumers. Satellite, wireless providers, Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access, and broadband over power line all attempt to challenge the current broadband providers (Litan and Singer, 2007). As Steven Globerman noted:

A market once in actual danger of domination by a handful of founding players has evolved into an innovative marketplace replete with services and players of all types and sizes. [7]

Consequently, major ISPs maintain that consumers have increasingly more competitors to choose from and any fear of a monopoly in the ISP market is unsound, although this may not be the case in the Canadian market.

Net neutrality hinders competition and innovation

Another counter argument ISPs present suggests that avoiding net neutrality would actually encourage competition and innovation. That is, innovation can take place on the network itself in the form of distributed content delivery, integrated voice/video/data platforms, and advanced quality of service (Hass, 2007). In the absence of Internet neutrality, last–mile networks (connecting homes and offices to the infrastructure) could differentiate themselves so that several different such networks could exist to serve different subgroups. In this line of argument, multiple last–mile networks serve to mitigate the possibility of a monopoly emerging because several as opposed to one last–mile network will exist to serve all subgroups (Yoo, 2004). Therefore, in the view of ISPs, because net neutrality hinders experimentation with possibly more effective network structures, it also stifles competition and innovation in the last–mile broadband markets.

Government involvement

In the mix of all these positions, governments also have a stake in the net neutrality debate (Marsden, 2011, 2010). From this perspective, progress on net neutrality has been relatively stagnant in the Canadian political realm, although the Canadian regulatory body, the CRTC, has been active in addressing the issue in a more pragmatic manner than elected politicians. The Commission’s Telecom Regulatory Policy CRTC 2009–657 is an attempt to take a step forward in the debate. In this policy decision, the CRTC looked to balance:

the freedom of Canadians to use the Internet for various purposes with the legitimate interests of ISPs to manage the traffic thus generated on their networks. [8]

The Commission noted that network investment should be the primary means of solving network congestion. However, investment alone is sometimes not enough and ISPs can be expected to legitimately manage network traffic to “address temporary network capacity constraints and changing network conditions” [9]. Nonetheless, traffic management practices must not be “unjustly discriminatory nor unduly preferential,” [10] and must be transparent to the consumer. The CRTC policy decision resulted from public consultation, which allowed interested parties to voice their opinions during the regulatory review process (Canadian Radio–television and Telecommunications Commission, 2008). The policy sought a balance by allowing ISPs to engage in traffic management practices while at the same time offering consumers some protections to ensure that network owners do not have an entirely free hand in altering traffic (Chung, 2011; Mueller and Asghari, 2011).

Critics have argued that the CRTC’s decision improperly puts the onus on the consumer to prove that an ISP is not abiding by the Commission’s principles. An individual user must compile evidence of an ISP’s illegitimate traffic management practices (Geist, 2009). Rather than requiring consumers to make the case that ISP management practices are contrary to the CRTC decision, Michael Geist has recommended that the Commission should establish regular compliance audits to ensure that ISP traffic management practices comply with the CRTC’s framework (Geist, 2009).Therefore, even though the CRTC’s approach seems to balance the interests of all parties in the net neutrality debate, some shortcomings in its policy decision prevent it from achieving a fully satisfactory compromise.

It is apparent from the review of the various stakeholder positions that numerous competing interests tend to tip the Internet either towards open access or a more closed network. The literature reflects the inclination of major ISPs to pull the Internet towards more closed access while online businesses and civil society groups advocate open access. In the midst of the tensions, governments attempt to bring the parties together to achieve a workable solution (see Figure 2).

 

Balancing the issues in the net neutrality debate
Figure 2: Balancing the issues in the net neutrality debate.

 

3.2. Interviews

The literature on net neutrality implies that many stakeholders customarily place themselves at opposite ends of the opinion spectrum in firm, intractable positions. However, the interviews of the stakeholder representatives revealed substantially more nuanced points of view, which suggest that open discussion among the stakeholders could result in agreement on many aspects of the debate.

Definition of net neutrality

To begin, all four agreed that a clearly stated definition of net neutrality is an important base for gaining an appreciation of different points of view. Their understanding of net neutrality demonstrated that, while it may not be possible to arrive at a definition totally acceptable to all parties, in many respects they were actually not far apart in their grasp of the term.

It should be expected that diverse aspects of net neutrality would be highlighted by each of the stakeholders. The ISP representative, for example, saw net neutrality largely through the lens of environments in which uninhibited competition occurs. But, the civil society representative also referred to the role of network operators in facilitating Internet traffic. The business representative approached the concept from a broader perspective, and along with the civil society representative, stated a dimension of justice should be stressed. In his words, net neutrality implied “fairness or equitable use” (V. Wollesen), which was similar to the civil society representative’s comments about equal treatment of all content and applications. Although the government regulator maintained a neutral position and declined to explicitly define the term, his responses to other questions showed comprehensive awareness of the scope of the concept.

Role of government

In a manner similar to their characterization of the definition of net neutrality, the four representatives agreed that government needs to be involved at a regulatory level, but their views about the scope and type of regulation varied. From the perspective of the ISP representative, regulation should not be applied to the physical infrastructure. The other three, however, saw regulation extending to the technology and offered reasons why the government should be involved at this level. The civil society representative expressed the view that policy neglect by the Canadian federal government had resulted in “virtually no competition” (M. Geist) for a service which the business representative labeled as an essential resource. The government regulator underscored Canada’s shift to a “broadband economy” in which the Internet served as “the engine to ... productivity growth” and the need for government involvement (S. Meyer). Although three of the four interviewees stated governments should be involved in regulating the physical infrastructure, only the business representative questioned whether the government, civil servants in particular, possessed the technical knowledge to oversee regulation. All of the stakeholders deemed government involvement in Internet traffic as necessary, but chose to emphasize different degrees of engagement.

Role of civil society

If governments should have a role in setting the rules for Internet traffic activity, so should civil society in the opinion of the four stakeholder representatives. The ISP and government representatives particularly emphasized the importance of taking all stakeholder positions into account, including civil society. Nonetheless, the ISP representative was concerned that the role and influence of civil society should be qualified to some extent. While civil society should definitely be a voice at the table, that voice should not overlook “business and business issues” (L. Bragg). In the Canadian context, the business, civil society, and government representatives noted that proceedings on traffic management practices conducted by the CRTC were effective in “setting up a process where your voice can be heard” (V. Wollesen). The civil society representative described these hearings as “pretty good” (M. Geist) and the business representative went so far as to state that these public proceedings attempted to obtain a broad view from the public, which drew positive comments from participants in the hearings themselves.

Encounters with net neutrality views

Some divergence in perspective was evident in the stakeholders’ opinions about the differing views about net neutrality which they have encountered. The ISP representative was quick to emphasize the need for network owners to maintain control over the networks in order to ensure continuous operation. In his judgment, network owners need to be able to regularly invest in the networks in response to consumer demand. Nonetheless, the ISP representative did not wish to overlook the arguments of other parties, particularly, small ISP providers which rent access to the larger networks to resell to consumers. The ISP representative acknowledged that small providers generally claim large ISPs try to hinder activity of small providers. The latter seek unfettered access to the networks of large ISPs so as to develop their business in order to satisfy customers, and the ISP representative accepted the position advanced by small providers as long as their access did not cause the network to fail. If the activity of the small ISPs “doesn’t break ... [his] network,“ the ISP representative could agree with the position of the small ISPs on net neutrality (L. Bragg).

Both the business and civil society representatives understand the position that the ISP stakeholders take on net neutrality. The business representative easily acknowledged that increasing bandwidth does ultimately require investment. Moreover, he recognized that the Internet user base and bandwidth intensive applications have increased resulting in greater demands for access to the large ISP networks. But, the business representative pointed out that, as information about the actual costs of additional bandwidth is not publically available, it is necessary to assume the cost of bandwidth is dependent largely on the profit margins desired by the ISPs rather than on costs of the infrastructure itself. Similar to the business representative, the civil society representative appreciated the position taken by ISP stakeholders. In his view, “their obligation is to maximize profit,” and went on to state that:

There’s nothing wrong with maximizing profit and by extension there is nothing wrong with a Bell or a Rogers or whoever the company happens to be, with promoting policies that would maximize their profits. That is in fact what they have an obligation to do (M. Geist).

It would be surprising, if the ISPs voiced opposition to policies that hinder the maximization of profit. However, the civil society representative pointed out that shareholder policy must be differentiated from the “right public policy” where the regulator and politicians are obligated to represent the country as a whole by taking the public’s interest into account (M. Geist).

While the government representative did not offer an opinion about the views of other stakeholder groups, because, as he said, the role of the CRTC is to “balance the different views” rather than form an opinion on the issues, he recognized that a variety of positions on net neutrality have been voiced (S. Meyer).

It is clear that the four stakeholder representatives do have an appreciation of positions advanced by other parties. If they did not explicitly account for all of those positions, as was the case with the ISP representative, the existence of different standpoints was obviously understood, even when they did not agree entirely with each other on all stances.

Common viewpoints

While the four stakeholder representatives agreed that ISPs should be able to manage Internet traffic, they made clear that this issue remains one of how to manage the traffic and define what constitutes fair management. From the perspective of the ISP representative, agreement exists among stakeholders on higher principles of net neutrality, but not yet on how to actually achieve them. This tension was reflected in the comments of the business representative. He asserted that the general public, some ISPs, and companies, which “base their ideas on the exchange of information or ... communication of ideas,” are overwhelmingly in support of net neutrality, while those who deliver the content are generally against it (V. Wollesen). Despite stating that little common ground exists between large ISPs and other stakeholders, his responses to other questions did not completely reflect this type of polarity. His ambivalence may be related to the technical aspects of Internet delivery. He easily conceded that the ISPs cannot be blamed for their profit motivation. However, a problem develops when profits result from unfair exploitation of a technical or legal obstacle. He pointed to the artificial barrier to competition on the last mile of Internet service delivery, which results in a conflict of interest in instances where the owner of the infrastructure also provides a competing service. In such cases, a question of unfair exploitation of the infrastructure arises. The business representative accepted the idea of fair traffic management, but noted that defining what is fair depends on the parties involved and is difficult to actually achieve. He stated that “arguably, the fairest thing is the one [the traffic management practice] that makes everybody upset” (V. Wollesen). From the business representative’s perspective, network management is highly technical and the fairest management method must be technically fair. However, since technical advice is frequently lacking in the debate about net neutrality, political arguments are easier to assert than to work through the technical issues. If, however, technical and quantitative data were made available, stakeholders might shift their positions on traffic management and also on net neutrality.

The civil society representative claimed that while all of the stakeholders agree on disclosure of Internet traffic management practices, full agreement has not been achieved and “there’s never going to be full agreement” (M. Geist). Furthermore, disclosure is only a sufficient solution if a fully competitive environment exists, which, in Michael Geist’s view, is not the case in Canada. Even so, he maintained that the CRTC ruling on ISP traffic management practices was “pretty reasonable” and “on the whole, it generally did a good job of establishing the appropriate conditions” (M. Geist). He qualified his view about the ruling by drawing attention to the problem of enforcing the decision and obtaining information on actual traffic management activities because he claimed it is unrealistic to expect most users to deal with and understand traffic management practices.

Despite the Internet being a relatively new technology with many views, uncertainty, and fear about its deployment, the government representative noted that all stakeholders agree on the importance of the Internet. He compared the Internet to earlier technologies which had profound impact on society coupled with fierce debates about their implications. In his view, society is simply in the midst of a similar debate about the Internet, which requires continued monitoring to ensure its orderly development. Like the civil society representative, he claimed that the CRTC ruling was “one of the most well received and well balanced” decisions by the Commission because it aimed to square perceived uncertainty and threats to openness with ISP and business concerns (S. Meyer). As the networks are a resource to be managed at some level, he believes that the CRTC used as transparent measures as possible to establish a solid framework to deal with traffic management issues.

Barriers to agreement

Recognizing that consensus about net neutrality has proven elusive so far, the stakeholder representatives were asked to reflect on what factors have hindered agreement on a balanced view. The ISP representative suggested that the different parties with different desires have simply not yet investigated the issues thoroughly enough to find a middle ground. Because a suitable forum has not been set up in which to explore what would work, the stakeholders have only asserted their positions and not searched for a feasible solution. He insisted a middle ground could be achieved, which might start by taking a small step toward what he labeled “junior net neutrality” (L. Bragg). Nonetheless, he warned that poor regulation could have “unintended consequences” and a detrimental impact that could result in network failure. He cautioned that there is a danger to require complete open access when the ISPs’ investments built the networks. As a result, he argued that the ISPs should not be forced to invest nor could governments run the network business with no management differentiation. He mentioned that some ISPs question the logic of being obligated to provide access to their networks:

there’s lots of people from my side who would just argue, I built this ... network, I mean I’m selling products and services over it, why ... if somebody wants to do something, let them build their own network. I mean, you could really simplify it and say, why should I be obligated to let anybody else on the network? Tell me why? What’s the logic behind that? (L. Bragg)

While suggesting that “there may be a middle ground, but ... [the] views are pretty orthogonal to one another,” the business representative insisted a compromise might not be the best choice since a common ground consisting of an unsustainable “regulatory mess” is not wanted (V. Wollesen). Moreover, he noted that movement towards compatibility of views could not occur in the absence of consideration of the technical basis of the arguments.

Pointing to the fears, uncertainties, and doubts of an earlier generation about regulating technologies (e.g., radio), the government representative suggested similar concerns could be a factor in regulating the evolving Internet. Stakeholders want assurance that no action or policy will endanger their activity. This desire to ensure that there is no endangerment of personal interests prevents “real agreement on all principles” (S. Meyer). To counter these fears, Meyer suggested that since it is difficult to define net neutrality, the concept must be separated into smaller components so that problematic areas can be addressed in a logical fashion.

Even though all four stakeholder representatives underlined the contradictory goals of stakeholder groups as the single most important barrier to achieving a balanced view about net neutrality, none of the representatives saw these goals as an insurmountable hurdle. Instead, they offered ideas about how to move beyond this challenge.

Recommendations to move forward

All four stakeholder representatives noted that government, specifically the CRTC in the Canadian context, must be involved. The quasi–arms–length position of the CRTC places it in a preferred position as opposed to intervention by politicians (L. Bragg). The ISP representative maintained that a long process of review, consultation, and decision making will likely be needed to move towards agreed upon goals. That conclusion might entail taking no particular action. The ISP representative emphasized that whatever steps are taken to reach a balanced perspective about net neutrality, network owners must not be prevented from investing in and receiving remuneration from their networks. Completely uncontrolled access would likely mean that ISPs would stop investing in upgrades and developments of their networks.

To make further progress in the debate about net neutrality, the business representative called for fuller disclosure of information, including information that could competitively hinder an ISP. In his view, the ISPs are in a position of market power and should therefore provide all the evidence “if they’re going to make the claims that they’re making” (V. Wollesen). Simply, more evidence is needed in order to change opinions.

The civil society representative saw more competition in the marketplace as a solution to net neutrality issues. Immediate fixes by the Canadian Competition Bureau and the CRTC to address abuses of market power and anti–competitive behavior would also help. Michael Geist thought that the CRTC should undertake regular audits of the traffic management practices of major ISPs. As he stated:

it is simply unrealistic to think that any individual consumer is going to be able to fully investigate and ... pull together the evidence that there’s a violation of traffic management guidelines (M. Geist).

Since discussion of net neutrality is often very political in nature, the government representative suggested working on definitional clarity. The term should be parsed into specific, clear issues as a means of reaching greater agreement among the stakeholder groups.

 

++++++++++

4. Discussion

Obvious points of agreement and very few subjects of strong contention are noticeable in the comments of the four stakeholder representatives. The importance of the Internet for the current and future economy stood out in the minds of all of the representatives. “Knowledge economy” and “broadband economy” were terms the business representative used to stress the importance of the Internet to economic well–being. Because of this economic significance, the involvement of all stakeholder groups in the debate about net neutrality was deemed necessary. No group should be left out. Government, specifically the CRTC, has an important role according to each of the interviewees.

All of the stakeholder representatives believed the debate about net neutrality could and should be pursued, but the discussion about the concept of net neutrality cannot be tackled as a whole and all at one time. The business and government representatives pointed to the political nature of the debate where focus on a general term like net neutrality results in difficulty in making progress on the cluster of issues encompassing the term. As the business representative put it: “It’s like arguing about God or something ... There’s no right answer” (V. Wollesen). While the ISP and government representatives suggested that there is no cost of maintaining the status quo, the ISP representative forecast that moving away from the status quo in an inappropriate manner might actually cost more. Indeed, three of the interviewees mentioned in one way or another that the best solution might result in everyone being equally upset. As the government representative said:

There’s a joke that as a regulator, if everybody is equally unhappy, you’ve done your job. If one person is happy and the other person is unhappy, you didn’t do your job (S. Meyer).

From that point of view, some caution should guide decision–making about any type of significant change from the current state of affairs. The ISP representative suggested moving forward on a principle–by–principle basis and working toward less threatening and incremental steps. The CRTC’s approach to net neutrality, which examined the specific issue of ISP traffic management practices, is an example.

Although the ISP and business representatives believe that businesses can handle or understand the networks better than government, all of the interviewees expressed some level of faith in the government in dealing with net neutrality. The business representative questioned the ability of government and civil servants to handle the detailed technical issues. Nonetheless, when asked if governments should take a proactive role in building a consensus, he stated: “given how the telecommunications infrastructure in this country has been designed ... one would hope ... that they take a role” (V. Wollesen). Similarly, although the ISP representative voiced considerable concern in handing control of the networks over to government, he believes that an agency like the CRTC will “get it figured out eventually,” indicating a degree of trust in the agency’s ability to deal with the issues appropriately.

Indeed, confidence in the CRTC, its processes and its handling of the traffic management proceedings, was evident among the responses of all four interviewees. For example, the ISP representative asserted that the CRTC is more effective in handling the issues of net neutrality than politicians (L. Bragg). The business representative noted that regardless of whether he agreed with the CRTC’s final decision on ISP traffic management practices, he believed that his submission to the CRTC was considered and he had the opportunity to state his point of view. Both the civil society and government representatives made the point that the CRTC decision was a reasonable one and was well received by most. While accepting that government should play a role, turning all control over to government was not considered a viable solution. Thus, ISPs should have some control over the networks and more broadly, all stakeholders should have a say in debating the issues.

The government representative stated that “there’s a lot of fear and uncertainty” around the Internet (S. Meyer). Because he is in a unique position with the opportunity to consider numerous arguments regarding net neutrality and has had the time to analyze the various positions, his vantage point affords him unique insight into the net neutrality debate. “Fear and uncertainty” was evident in a number of remarks by the stakeholder group representatives. For example, the ISP representative claimed loss of control and subsequent failure of the networks is “the industry’s biggest fear” (L. Bragg). Uncertainty permeates the question of whether the networks would actually fail if completely opened up. This type of concern was also echoed in the business representative’s belief that industry, as opposed to government and civil servants, should be dealing with the net neutrality issues. He expressed uncertainty about the ability of government to manage these issues.

Although the CRTC regulatory process was praised, the ISP representative noted that, “there’s not been a great forum for trying to explore what would work” (L. Bragg). The CRTC process might be an effective means for stakeholders to present their submissions and articulate their positions, but an actual arena in which to debate the net neutrality issues is lacking. That is, the CRTC process does not encourage much interaction between stakeholders, but simply provides a setting for stakeholders to define their position. As the ISP representative aptly stated:

There needs to be some middle ground and I don’t think it’s been worked at enough in order for people to find middle ground. Everybody sort of puts their stake in the ground ... and they don’t want to pick up the stake and move it. They just argue, argue, and argue (L. Bragg).

Therefore, a forum where stakeholders can openly discuss many of the issues with each other is still needed.

 

++++++++++

5. Conclusion

This research has demonstrated that placing stakeholders in two separate camps is too simplistic. While the net neutrality debate is often depicted as a fierce debate with primarily two groups of stakeholders at odds with each other (Ganley and Allgrove, 2006), the positions of stakeholders are more complex and considerably more nuanced than first perceptions might suggest.

The notion of tense conflicts on net neutrality is a key obstacle in the debate. The literature presented a wide variety of positions suggesting uncertainty about finding any middle ground that stakeholder groups would accept. Although Tim Wu and Jon Peha were among a few authors who looked for a compromise and a balanced policy approach (Wu, 2003; Peha, 2007), adversarial debate on the merits of net neutrality, such as between Tim Wu and Christopher Yoo, predominates (Wu and Yoo, 2007). Authors often offered reasons why net neutrality principles should or should not be protected. For example, Barratt and Shade contend that a two–tiered Internet is the “new variation of the digital divide” and insisted that market self–regulation doesn’t work for the public interest (Barratt and Shade, 2007). On the other hand, Litan and Singer (2007) asserted that net neutrality is actually detrimental for consumers. On the whole, the literature presented a picture with businesses and civil society stakeholder groups seeking net neutrality, the ISP group against net neutrality principles, and government trying to bring these two sides together. As a result, sole reliance on the literature can result in distorted or incomplete understanding of the landscape.

The interviews point to more agreement than disagreement among stakeholders. Extreme positions were not confirmed. None of the stakeholder representatives argued for complete open access, nor did they suggest that access should be entirely closed. All interviewees were thinking within some middle ground. Moreover, the stakeholders acknowledged the other stakeholders’ viewpoints, providing a foundation on which groups may work. There is reason to believe that the net neutrality debate can actually be pursued in an incremental and practical manner.

Proceeding with the net neutrality debate does not require adopting complete openness, nor does it assume rejecting the principle of net neutrality altogether (see also, Marsden, 2010). Because extreme positions were not evident among the stakeholder representatives, taking significant steps in discussion about net neutrality are not necessary nor are they likely to be effective. Small steps and recognition that complete agreement on all issues will not be reached should guide the debate. In considering net neutrality questions, it must be recognized that a utopian solution where all of the issues are resolved will not be possible. In this scenario, it is not surprising that the CRTC’s focus on the specific issue of ISP traffic management practices received general praise.

Discussion on an issue–to–issue basis as opposed to addressing the concept of net neutrality as a whole will be the most effective approach. The literature and the interviews suggest starting with defining the concept of net neutrality. Politicization of the debate, i.e., viewing the matter as a two–sided “us versus them” approach, can easily happen. Both the literature and the interviews show that stakeholders’ positions may be diverse, but the interviews demonstrate they are not as incompatible as often perceived. Although this study was conducted largely in a Canadian context, its key findings are echoed by international organizations. For example, in 2005, the World Summit on the Information Society meeting in Tunis discussed the challenges of information and communications technology development and Internet governance. The resulting Tunis Agenda for the Information Society emphasized key points on Internet governance which are in tune with the conclusions of this paper and serve as a guideline in advancing the net neutrality debate on an international scale. The Tunis Agenda reaffirmed that “the management of the Internet encompasses both technical and public policy issues and should involve all stakeholders and relevant intergovernmental and international organizations” (World Summit on the Information Society, 2005). Thus, despite the fact that this study concentrated mostly on Canada, the conclusions naturally and necessarily stretch to global contexts and add to the larger conversation regarding the future of the Internet economy. End of article

 

About the authors

Alexander Ly is a Master of Electronic Commerce graduate of Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, and holds a B.A. from Carleton University. He began studies for his J.D. degree at Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, Toronto, in September 2011.
E–mail: alexander [dot] ly [at] gmail [dot] com

Bertrum H. MacDonald is Professor of Information Management, School of Information Management, Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. He holds a B.Sc. (Biology) from Acadia University, M.A. (History of Science), and M.L.S. and Ph.D. (Information Science) from the University of Western Ontario. His current research examines the use and influence of scientific information, produced primarily by governmental and intergovernmental organizations, in public policy contexts.
E–mail: bertrum [dot] macdonald [at] dal [dot] ca

Sandra Toze is a Lecturer of Information Management, School of Information Management, Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, and holds a BAH from Queen’s University, a Master of Library and Information Science (University of Toronto), and is currently an Interdisciplinary Ph.D. candidate at Dalhousie University. Her research involves examining how humans, particularly groups, find and integrate information to successfully accomplish knowledge–based work tasks, and to help design tools and practices to facilitate and enhance this process.
E–mail: sandra [dot] toze [at] dal [dot] ca

 

Acknowledgements

The contributions of the interviewees, Lee Bragg, Michael Geist, Stephan Meyer, and Victor Wollesen to this study are gratefully acknowledged.

 

Notes

1. CRTC Telecom Decision 2009–657: Review of the Internet traffic management practices of Internet service providers is a decision by the CRTC related to one aspect of net neutrality, that is, the Internet traffic management practices of ISPs. In this decision, the CRTC aimed to establish a framework to balance the interests of Canadians in using the Internet for a variety of reasons with the legitimate interests of ISPs to manage network traffic.

2. Cunha, 2009, p. 57.

3. Wu and Yoo, 2007, p. 582.

4. Wong, et al., p. 8.

5. Litan and Singer, 2007, p. 542.

6. Hass, 2007, p. 1,605.

7. Globerman, 2008, p. 23.

8. Canadian Radio–television and Telecommunications Commission, 2009. “Telecom Regulatory Policy CRTC 2009–657,” para. 36.

9. Canadian Radio–television and Telecommunications Commission, 2009. “Telecom Regulatory Policy CRTC 2009–657,” para. 36.

10. Canadian Radio–television and Telecommunications Commission, 2009. “Telecom Regulatory Policy CRTC 2009–657,” section 3 — “Clarity.”

 

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Appendix

Interview protocol

  1. There are many definitions of net neutrality out there. What does net neutrality mean to you?
  2. There have been and there are currently ongoing discussions around Internet traffic regulation. In your view, should the government have a hand in regulating the Internet?
       — Possible follow up: If they should regulate, to what extent should the government have a hand in regulating the Internet?
  3. Should civil society have a role to play in the net neutrality debate?
       — Possible follow up: If it does have a role, what is it?
  4. What are the immediate benefits of open Internet regulations?
    What are the immediate costs of open Internet regulations?
    What are the long–term benefits of open Internet regulations?
    What are the long–term costs of open Internet regulations?
       — Possible follow up question: What role does traffic management have in influencing competition and innovation?
  5. Have you heard of the differing views surrounding net neutrality? What are your opinions of these views?
  6. In what you’ve heard and understand about the varying positions on net neutrality, did you notice any common viewpoints between the positions of ISPs, businesses, government, and the general public on the issue?
       — Possible follow up: For example, do you think there are common viewpoints on some minimal level of traffic management?
       — Possible follow up: For example, do you think there are common viewpoints that there should be traffic management when there is high network congestion?
       — Possible follow up: For example, do you think there are common viewpoints on giving priority to vulnerable services and applications such as voice and online gaming?
       — Possible follow up: For example, do you think there are common viewpoints on blocking illegal content?
  7. Looking at what has happened in the net neutrality debate and how it has developed thus far, what do you think has prevented an agreement on a common balance between stakeholders?
  8. Is it possible, given the roadblocks so far, that there could be a common agreement where all stakeholders ultimately agree on a balance?
       — Possible follow up: What would it take to get a balance? What is your sense of where there might be some traction on where people might be willing to shift?
  9. What kind of recommendations would you make to move the net neutrality debate forward in the next five years?
       — Possible follow up: Would continuing discussions with all stakeholders at the table help?
       — Possible follow up: Should the government take a proactive role in building a consensus?

 


Editorial history

Received 7 November 2011; accepted 2 April 2012.


Creative Commons Licence
“Understanding the net neutrality debate: listening to stakeholders” by Alexander Ly, Bertrum H. MacDonald, and Sandra Toze is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–NonCommercial–NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Understanding the Net neutrality debate: Listening to stakeholders
by Alexander Ly, Bertrum H. MacDonald, and Sandra Toze
First Monday, Volume 17, Number 5 - 7 May 2012
https://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3857/3205
doi:10.5210/fm.v17i5.3857





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