How are whistleblowers perceived in different countries? Does digitisation lead to surveillance capitalism? Are blogs and social media a catalyst for democratic change in authoritarian states? What does Europe have to say about how cyber conflicts should be tackled? In the lead-up to the re:publica conference and under our Finding Europe heading, we will put out a bi-weekly review of key debates on these and other issues in cooperation with our media partner euro|topics, with voices from the press and websites of Europe. Our fifth contrubtion tackles the issue of net neutrality.
Net neutrality is widely seen as a precondition for non-discriminatory access to the Web and free competition. While the US has introduced rules for a free and open Internet, net neutrality is still a bone of contention in the EU.
For Pope Francis the Internet is a “gift from God”, which however can only show its positive side if everyone has equal access to it. So one could say the pope is a defender of network neutrality, a project that can well use the support of such prominent figures. Because controversy has been brewing for some time now regarding the equitable transport of all content on the web. With the increasing flow of traffic on the data highways, the appetites of the network providers who build and operate these highways and of the big Internet companies who use them to send data on its way are also increasing. What unites them is the goal of boosting their revenues through a faster flow of information on the web.
But such appetites were thwarted in the US when a government body, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC), intervened in the market by ruling in favour of net neutrality in early 2015, the Spanish paper El Mundo comments with surprise: “This decision by the FCC is of particular significance because this is the regulatory authority of the very state that otherwise vehemently defends almost unlimited freedom of private enterprise.” In the paper’s view, “Europe should follow the example of the US.”
The Basic Right to Non-discriminatory Communication
Only a few weeks later US telecommunications firms launched a counter-attack and appealed against the FCC’s rules on network neutrality. They don’t want to lose the chance of cashing in on companies like Netflix or Google that are willing to pay to have huge quantities of data reach their customers quicker. US Journalist Amy Goodman vehemently rejects such initiatives on the Portuguese web portal Esquerda. “Imagine if the water from your tap wasn’t as clean as your neighbour’s just because he pays for ‘premium water’. The big network operators have done extensive lobbying to create a multi-layered Internet, so that they can squeeze even more money out of it. But millions of people are demanding the basic right to non-discriminatory communication.”
In this case, non-discriminatory means above all not dependent on how much money you have, the Austrian paper Die Presse explains: “What the supporters of such fast lanes often fail to mention is the harm done to all those who can’t afford them. Clearly, all non-commercial content such as independent media, blogs and podcasts would suddenly be put at a disadvantage.”
Time For Talks Without Taboos
So far the Netherlands and Slovenia are the only EU states to have written network neutrality into their legislation. In April 2014, the European Parliament spoke out in favour of a legal basis for network neutrality on the pan-European level. However other bodies are resisting the initiative, the Polish online portal Dziennik Internautów notes with concern: “The EU Commissioner for Digital Economy, Günther Oettinger, has called for ‘new ideas’ and ‘discussions free of taboos’ on the future of telecommunications. In his view telecommunications companies could be encouraged to invest in the networks of areas with low population density if in exchange they are allowed to get greater returns on their investments in the densely populated regions.”
The fact that the topic is being monopolised by Europe’s politicians without any audible outcry from civil society has to do with the fact that Europeans still show too little interest in the Internet, Italian network activist Guido D'Ippolito criticises on the blog portal Che Futuro, pointing to his own country: “Network neutrality is of strategic importance for our future. Italy’s backwardness in digital matters is worrying. Not only on an infrastructural but also on a social level.”
Hungarians, meanwhile, have a completely different set of concerns. Although Viktor Orbán’s government is known for intervening in the market and the media, it has refrained from influencing network neutrality, the portal 444 comments in surprise: The Hungarian state loves to intervene in the free market. But when it’s finally time to take action against a big company on the consumers' behalf, the decision makers sit back and twiddle their thumbs.” The target here is the Internet provider UPC, which at the start of April among other things blocked connections to the popular private broadcaster RTL Klub, hindering its flow of information without any authorisation to do so. The Hungarian government's failure to intervene could be to do with the fact that RTL Klub often reports critically on its activities.
So while network neutrality is a political reality in the US, Europe still has a long way to go. And whether the pope's wish will ever become reality is anyone’s guess.
Twenty-six foreign correspondents follow the key debates in Europe and comb through the commentary pages of influential media for the euro|topics international online press review. All the selected opinion pieces are available in German, English and French. The eurotopics press review has been contributing to the formation of a European public sphere since 2005, and has a constantly growing archive of more than 30,000 commentaries. An index of roughly 500 newspapers, online portals and blogs provides broad access to Europe’s media landscape. The journalists’ network n-ost has been producing the daily press review on behalf of the German Federal Agency for Civic Education since 2008.
For more information see www.eurotopics.net and @eurotopics.