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Internet Society: There’s Room for Compromise on Net Neutrality

The group of caretakers of Internet standards and practices has been on record supporting fundamental principles linked with net neutrality. But in Part 3 of ReadWriteWeb’s interview with Sally Wentworth, the Internet Society’s public policy spokesperson says that enabling a service provider to engineer a competitive advantage for itself may also be considered fair.

If you go back and read every major story on the topic of net neutrality, you may still come away asking the basic question: What is it, really? 

Net Neutrality is one of those strange political topics that you think you understand until you begin studying it. From one side of the aisle, you’ll be told it’s about one price for one tier of bandwidth; from the other, it’s all about deregulation. If you deregulate a market, you don’t get one price.

The Internet Society (ISOC) – the coalition of caretakers of Internet standards and practices, including the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) – is on record as supporting equal access to the Internet for all the world’s citizens. That support has been trumpeted under headlines stating it supports net neutrality.  But it’s presumptions like this that can get a global consortium into trouble, especially with member countries and other stakeholders who think the Society has just endorsed their particular interpretation of Net Neutrality.

In this third and final part of our interview with ISOC Senior Public Policy Manager Sally Wentworth, we talked about how difficult it is to navigate a path that has a dozen different maps.

Scott Fulton, ReadWriteWeb: When I ask Internet companies what’s the number one policy issue they face, four out of five say it’s “net neutrality.” Their definitions vary because net neutrality means different things to different people. But one thing they can agree upon is the notion that bandwidth should be like tofu: plain, homogenized and one level – not stratified. It should be available for all companies at the same, essentially fair, rates. So how does that get regulated and by whom? Is this something we must leave to individual countries to sort out, or do we need to start negotiating an international regulatory framework that countries can follow for their own best interests?

Sally Wentworth, Senior Public Policy Manager, The Internet Society: My first view would be that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to something like this, because different countries really do have different economic models with respect to their communications markets. The competition levels in the United States are different from what we’ve seen in Europe, and certainly different from what you might find in emerging markets, for example. So it’s difficult to provide a single regulatory solution that’s going to be applicable or successful [for all countries].

Having said that, I think there are some basic principles that apply. That’s been our view, because we had a similar experience to you. We said, “Okay, we should say something about net neutrality,” and [the responses we got sounded like], “What is it you want me to comment on?” “Net neutrality” seems to be a buzzword that means lots of different things to lots of different people. So if we step back from that and say, “What are the basic principles that should apply?” we have said that we believe that people should have access to the legal content of their choosing. They should have competition among carriers. And there should be transparency between the user, the consumer and the provider as to what network management means, and how it’s been implemented for their service. We do recognize that networks are managed, but they should not be managed in ways that are anti-competitive or discriminatory.

When you step back from that, different countries may have different tools or require different policy measures to fulfill those principles. Maybe the solution in some country is to really focus on promoting competition in the marketplace. Other countries might say that’s less of an issue; [they may say], “We have plenty of last-mile competition,” but there’s an issue with transparency and making sure customers know what the terms of service really mean. Like I said, I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all [solution]. But in the end, if you think of having an Internet experience – you go online, and [as far as you can tell], This Is The Internet – then those are the principles that should apply.

“I think it’s fair to say we will see innovation on the technical side; we’ll also see innovation in the business models and business cases. And that’s probably a good thing.”

– Sally Wentworth, senior public policy manager, The Internet Society

RWW: Comcast has a system in place right now where subscribers can get access to first-run, on-demand movies that are delivered via Internet, without that service applying to the customer’s download caps. Subscribers can’t do the same thing with their Netflix service even if they subscribe to Netflix over Comcast. A lot of people are claiming that’s not competitive. Comcast says it can offer the service like this because it’s going through content delivery networks like Akamai, they are the networks of Comcast’s choosing, and it makes delivery [of this service] cost-effective.

You talked about fairness and about preserving competition. In a lot of people’s minds, those two are joined at the hip. And there are some who would make the case that, if you’re going to promote competitiveness, then part of being competitive is engineering an advantage for yourself and not necessarily giving that advantage to your competitor. Don’t you think it’s important that innovation, with respect to competitiveness, should enable the innovators to have some type of competitive advantage, even if it’s for a limited period of time?

SW: Yes, I suppose I probably would. There is, and always has been, in the Internet space, new and innovative business models. Some of those business models have survived, and some of them haven’t. In the cases where they haven’t, then oftentimes either somebody’s come up with a better idea or a better application, or the application itself didn’t meet the expectations of the end user. Yeah, I think it’s fair to say we will see innovation on the technical side; we’ll also see innovation in the business models and business cases. And that’s probably a good thing. 

Stock photo by Shutterstock.

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The ReadWrite Editorial policy involves closely monitoring the tech industry for major developments, new product launches, AI breakthroughs, video game releases and other newsworthy events. Editors assign relevant stories to staff writers or freelance contributors with expertise in each particular topic area. Before publication, articles go through a rigorous round of editing for accuracy, clarity, and to ensure adherence to ReadWrite's style guidelines.

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