Should Net Neutrality be undermined during natural disasters to free up bandwidth and increase access to more “essential” services? Net Neutrality regulations around the world frequently have exemptions for emergency situations. This is the case even in India, which has arguably the strongest Net Neutrality regulations in the world; regulations make an exception for emergency circumstances, but don’t elaborate on what can be done in such situations, such as pandemics. Indian telcos asked the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India earlier this year to allow them to offer some websites for free during the first few days of the pandemic.
Panelists at the United Nations-backed Internet Governance Forum discussed the ways Net Neutrality principles played out during the pandemic, and how these principles should be interpreted in times of crisis.
How Europe grappled with Net Neutrality during COVID
“Network neutrality rules are designed for such exceptional circumstances,” Frode Sorensen, senior adviser for internet governance at the Norwegian Communications Authority said. “Resilience of Internet technology does a good job and ISPs may also use exceptional traffic management measures when needed. At the same time, end users’ rights are safeguarded” by the European Union’s net neutrality regulations, he added. “The European Internet infrastructure has coped well despite the increased load in Internet traffic.”
“Indeed, major content and service provider challenges’ impact on the networks warrants attention,” Aurore Tual, chief of the French telecoms regulator Arcep’s open internet unit, said. “Networks in France did not experience issues during the COVID-19 lockdown that lasted from March to May and thanks to the telecommunication network capacity and performance, and on the other to the mobilization of the ecosystem. The net neutrality regulation has once again had had relevance and capacity to adapt.” Tual added that the lessons from the lockdown in France for the internet would “ensure that Internet remains a common good.”
Professor KS Park, a proponent of Net Neutrality in South Korea, said, “That increase in the volume of data has opened the windows of opportunities for ISPs to make an argument that, oh, we’ve got to be paid for delivery of all of these data packets.” Park was referring to a termination fee regime that is practically unprecedented in most developed markets like Korea that threatens Net Neutrality principles.
What is happening in India
The discussion included two representatives from India, Smriti Parsheera, a technology policy researcher at the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, and Apar Gupta, the executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation.
A Net Neutrality committee to be created by the Department of Telecommunications is forthcoming. “So, while these are, of course, great initiatives and we’re moving in the right direction, where we’re lacking in the recommendations is, of course, the question of how all of this is to happen, right. So, if we say all the ISPs will automatically become members, we’re talking about, you know, 400 odd entities which are going to be members of this body, will we have 400 non-ISP representatives also is the question that remains unanswered,” Parsheera said. “And also, will there be transparency in the functioning of the body, will have to announce what investigations it’s doing, why it’s doing one versus the other investigation, and so those are questions that are remaining unanswered, but it’s an interesting initiative which is being recommended.”
“It’s more about access to devices which is the blockage for Internet access at this point and it wasn’t so much about data price, although that’s one of the factors,” Parsheera said, explaining why telcos’ request that Net Neutrality rules be relaxed during the lockdown didn’t go through. “There should be no commercial arrangements possible at the back end when you’re dealing with this kind of emergency situation,” she added.
“A good basis to proceed with the conversation around Internet openness and network neutrality is to go back to these constitutional principles at least in our domestic law, and I think that recognition is also already, which is very strong and fairly positive and that the access to the Internet actually fulfills a fundamental right, and that kind of understanding also goes beyond the traditional understanding of regulation and it’s much richer, it’s a human rights perspective,” Gupta said.
“I think this is a significant issue once we integrate net neutrality, openness, and access to the Internet within the human right framework, it becomes strong ultimate beneficiaries,” he later added.
Is zero rating always bad?
Luca Belli, Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation at Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV) Law School cited a comment by Anriette Esterhuysen, executive director of the Association for Progressive Communications, mentioning South Africa’s zero rating of some educational applications. “In South Africa there was also massive zero-rating of educational platforms during the pandemic and this is indeed a very good example of good uses of zero-rating and I think those who have been taking a part of this debate over the past year, as in any kind of a restriction of discriminatory technique or practice, there is always a context to be provided and there is never a black and white solution, really.”
Disclosure: Nikhil Pahwa, editor and publisher of MediaNama, was scheduled to be on this discussion but did not attend. Pahwa was the founding chair of the Internet Freedom Foundation, whose executive director participated in this discussion.