A voluntary code titled: Voluntary Code on Safeguarding the Open Internet" (”the Code”) was publicly unveiled at the recently held Caribbean Association of National Telecommunication Organizations (“CANTO”) meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The Code’s stated objective indicates that:
“The Code is in response to concerns brought forward by operators about consumer rights in accessing content over the internet. The Code seeks to balance consumer rights and responsibilities with the availability of flexible network management tools for operators. The wider objective of the Code is to provide a framework for operators across the Caribbean Region to collectively address the issue of Net Neutrality. ”
Net neutrality can be defined as the principle that all internet traffic should be treated equally. Where internet traffic passing through a network is not treated equally by the operator of that network, this amounts to data discrimination.
Barack Obama, the United States President (who has an entire section of the White House website dedicated to Net neutrality) had this to say on the virtues of an open internet:
An open Internet is essential to the American economy, and increasingly to our very way of life. By lowering the cost of launching a new idea, igniting new political movements, and bringing communities closer together, it has been one of the most significant democratizing influences the world has ever known.
“Net neutrality” has been built into the fabric of the Internet since its creation — but it is also a principle that we cannot take for granted. We cannot allow (ISPs) to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas…
Within the past 4 years, the notion has gained increased importance globally and has even seen some countries including Chile, Slovenia, the Netherlands, Brazil and Guyana passing legislation to protect end-users against breaches of the principle by Internet service providers (ISPs).
Against this backdrop, the fact that ISPs in the region have voluntarily sought to observe a code in support of net neutrality is laudable.
Already, a number of ISPs operating in the region have signed on to the Code which has at its core, the following policy statement:
“CANTO and its members support the concept of the open internet and the general principle that legal content, applications and services, should not be blocked. ”
The Code’s objective is to secure the open internet by observing net neutrality. This is a rather noble ideal, especially when expressed by a collective of ISPs – the very parties most likely to breach net neutrality principles.
While supporting net neutrality is admirable, CANTO’s approach to achieving this end will likely see a divergence of views on the acceptability of the Code in its current form. Members of the business community and civil society actors in the region may have pause to be suspicious of the intent of the Code, when the details of the Code are brought into sharper focus .
Lawful and Legal
The Code repeatedly refers, throughout its three pages, to “lawful” or “legal” content, applications and services as a precursor to its signatories’ observation of net neutrality. However, the words are not defined in the document. This raises two sets of challenges for correctly understanding the placement of the phrases in the Code.
In the first instance, the potential implications of a repeated assertion that your obligation as an internet provider is to only allow ‘legal’ or ‘lawful’ content to be accessed in an unfettered manner are: 1. as an internet provider, you do not intend to allow unlawful content to be accessed via your connection and/or 2. You will allow unlawful content to be accessed, but, in a fettered manner.
The second challenge, which follows from the first is that an internet provider’s assertion that its net neutrality obligations are limited to allowing ‘legal’ or ‘lawful’ content to be accessed in an unfettered manner is that it begs the questions: Who gets to determine what is ‘legal’? What is that party’s definition of ‘legal’? In any event, how will a determination of lawfulness/legality be made?
This feature has been picked up by other observers as well. For e.g. ICT-Pulse notes:
“First, throughout the document it is continually emphasised that legal, lawful content, applications and services should not be blocked. However, should an operator be of the view that a particular service (for example) is illegal, does it go ahead and block it, or should that matter be first decided by a third party, such as the local telecoms regulator or the courts?”
In fairness to the regional ISPs, another side to this aspect of the debate does exist. It could be argued, with some merit, that the Code’s preoccupation with lawful content is merely reflective of existing globally accepted standards.
Consider the following two examples:
- The FCC’s Open Internet Order at Appendix A, p203 reads: “A person engaged in the provision of broadband Internet access service, insofar as such person is so engaged, shall not block lawful content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices, subject to reasonable network management.”
- The NetMundial Statement is widely regarded as the only statement of principles in respect of the internet which has, to date, received widespread acceptance from different stakeholders in the global internet community. Upon closer scrutiny, the NetMundial Statement also adopts language that accords a differentiated status to ‘lawful’ content. The relevant section of that statement reads: “[The] Internet should continue to be a globally coherent, interconnected, stable, unfragmented, scalable and accessible network-of-networks, based on a common set of unique identifiers and that allows data packets/information to flow freely end-to-end regardless of the lawful content. ”
Notably, in neither of the two examples is the phrase “lawful content” defined. Accordingly, it would not be without merit for the signatories to the CANTO Code to argue that qualifying their commitment to net neutrality by the insertion of references to ‘lawful/legal content’ in the Code is neither without precedent or unfounded in the current prevailing global context.
The Code doesn’t cover the full scope of net neutrality ills
The Code’s policy objective is directed at the internet service providers’ abstention from blocking content. On the face of it, this seems to be a deficient objective since the principle of net neutrality is not only breached when an internet provider blocks content. The neutrality of a network can also be eroded by any act of a network intermediary that distorts or impacts the integrity of the data passing between the provider of information on the internet and the end-user wishing to access it. So for instance, when data passing through the network is throttled or, where the network operator opts to implement some form of paid prioritisation of traffic, the principle of net neutrality will have been breached.
To the extent that the Code does not explicitly address other well-known means of interfering with net neutrality as a policy objective, it is open to reasonable interpretation that the exclusion of other means of interference with net neutrality was an oversight on the part of the framers of the Code. Alternatively, it may be interpreted that the Code was expressly crafted to allow ISPs in the Caribbean free rein to, for example, throttle their networks as they see fit.
If the exclusion of other forms of impinging on the neutrality of networks was an oversight, then clearly, the deficiency needs to be addressed. However, if the latter interpretation is accurate and the exclusion was deliberate, then from the perspective of tech entrepreneurs with web-based offerings, this may be a legitimate basis for concern.
If, for instance, a telecoms provider decides to throttle data associated with the service offerings of those entrepreneurs then this grey area may be problematic. Equally, if the ISPs decide to implement a paid prioritisation scheme, it then means that early stage “techtrepreneurs”, without significant funding. will probably not be in a position to effectively compete with more entrenched competitors who can afford to pay to have their data transmitted to regional end users. This could potentially have a strangling effect on the development of a thriving technology-focused entrepreneurial environment in the region.
For the purpose of clarity, the stated objective of the Code may require some revising.
Safeguarding the Internet on whose behalf?
The Code positions itself as an attempt by the signatories to safeguard the open internet. The open internet, by definition, is a neutral network. Therefore, in teleological terms, a code in support of the ideals of net neutrality which seeks to place terms and conditions on the manner in which a party embraces net neutrality is, inherently, antithetical to the notion of net neutrality itself. I would therefore not be surprised if astute civil society advocates zeroed in on this fact.
Civil society actors in the region will not be the only ones viewing this latest move with some consternation. The code of practice may also give pause to technology-focused business interests whose products may compete with value added offerings of signatories to the Code. Such fears would not be without foundation in recent experiences. The clear example: the blocking of over the top (”OTT”) VOIP traffic by several internet providers [link]. This has implications for the supra-national OTT services who probably would not care too much but more importantly, indigenous developers of web apps who stand to suffer a similar fate.
Arguably, the Code’s reference in the title to “safeguarding the internet” is therefore, really not an expression of a broad-based desire to secure the internet with the interests of all the relevant various stakeholders in mind.
One potential outcome of the CANTO Code might be what amounts to a de-facto legitimisation of future efforts of the regional ISPs to stamp out OTT competitors to their own product offerings. It is one thing to take a course of action perceived to be draconian (such as taking a unilateral decision to block Viber, Skype and other OTT VOIP applications). Its quite another to justify that same course of action against an objective framework such as the Code. In this way, the Code could serve to remove the sense of ultimate responsibility of any one regional internet provider for any of their future actions in response to the perceived threat of OTT applications – in its stead, a cloak of collective responsibility that spreads across all the signatories to the Code.
Also, it would appear that net neutrality is becoming more of a meaningful consideration for Caribbean society – certainly at the governmental level. This is borne out by the slew of recent legislative and policy activity throughout the region which expressly addresses the open internet. Some examples include the proposed
Eastern Caribbean Telecommunications Authority (ECTEL) regulations; the recent passage of the Telecommunications Act in Guyana; and the Jamaican Government’s stated support for net neutrality.
If these movements are signalling the beginning of larger region-wide move towards legislating for the protection of net neutrality, this could translate into a scenario where, as in the case of ECTEL, civil society and other actors may have inputs into the drafting of regulations. Consequently, it could also mean that more enforcement mechanisms with teeth may result and, certainly, more genuinely rights-respecting provisions may be put in place. Such a restricting regulatory environment is not ideal for ISPs looking to benefit from the lack of restrictions on their ability to take appropriate actions to protect their investments.
In this prevailing context, the Code may be viewed as a preemptive strike against the imposition of further regulatory constraints by regulators in the region. If the ISPs, especially in a unified manner, can point to the existence of a pre-existing means of self-regulation via soft law that fills the erstwhile vacuum, it may lessen the impetus of regional regulators to step into the fray.
From the perspective of legislators in the region, it may be necessary to begin questioning whether the self-imposed code by ISPs is sufficient to protect the rights of netizens in the West Indies.
More broadly, there seems to be sufficient scope for a larger discussion of what, if anything, net neutrality actually means to us in the Caribbean and what our collective response, irrespective of our stakeholder grouping, ought to be.
This response must take into consideration that a completely neutral network is, perhaps, more grounded in an ideal than in reality. As exemplified by the FCC Order, even the most pro-net neutrality regulatory agencies, when attempting to regulate net neutrality, have
expressly recognised that exceptions must exist.
In the Caribbean, it may be that too much of the debate surrounding net neutrality has progressed on false parameters – those adopted from first world countries who based the debate on their circumstances. In other words, are we, in the tradition of V.S. Naipaul, being mimic men in respect of how we are even framing this conversation? After, all, low per capita income and low rates of internet penetration are not issues that, say, most Western European or North American states have to factor when considering net neutrality. Accordingly, how we in the Caribbean conceive of regimes to deal with net neutrality may have to differ from those examples as well.
A good example of a nuanced approach to legislating for net neutrality, while taking into account the country’s particular circumstances, is the Marco Civil in Brazil [mirror]. In the Marco Civil, only two exceptions to net neutrality are allowed: technical requirements essential to the adequate provision of services and applications; and prioritization of emergency services. In a first world state with predominantly high speed fibre optic connections to the network and multiple, overlapping networks for data to flow on, there may well be no need to prioritise the network traffic of emergency services. However, in a developing world context where the quality of networks and available speeds are a live issue, this would clearly be a relevant basis for legislating an exception to the rule.
It would seem that the key consideration is: when legislative or policy positions are being adopted in the Caribbean, what exceptions to the net neutrality principles should we be willing to collectively accept as valid input considerations, given the particular country’s circumstances?
When framed in this way, the Code may be viewed as the ISPs placing their view on the table as a
constituency grouping. In keeping with the multi-stakeholder model which has been the bedrock of global internet policy and governance decision making, it may now be time for end-users, civil society, regional NGOS, the business constituency and individual Caribbean Governments to share their vision of what net neutrality in a Caribbean context should look like.