05.11.2015

Network neutrality ensures a free society

Time has finally come for it to have a political framework

(English translation of the article published by the Süddeutsche Zeitung Nov 5, 2015)

Europe decided against strict network neutrality which is unfortunate. Almost two years passed which saw debating and struggling about and word smithing on the draft regulation. On the Tuesday before last during the so-called tripartite discussions involving the EU Commission, national governments and the European Parliament, the negotiated compromise was adopted in the European Parliament with a two-thirds majority. Less than twenty-four hours, later Deutsche Telekom piped up with its suggestion for an Internet toll thereby confirming fears that, in fact, there will be two classes of Internet access each having different quality. Small companies that don't have money for fast data transit could pay with a "turnover share of a few percent "as the proposal stated. How inept seeing as the discussion was specifically about how specialized services should only be an exception and in the interest of the public.

Timotheus Höttges, CEO of Deutsche Telekom, emphasized that "differentiating between quality is by no means a revolution in the web, but, rather, a natural progression." There is agreement on this point especially when it comes to using large amounts of data since this can eventually cost the user more money. The snag here is that if this is about feeding in contents, so about the provider side, then there is no agreement whatsoever with this statement. There has to be equality on the web because it is unacceptable for well-financed market players to be able to buy passing lanes on the Internet at the expense of smaller providers. This is about the time-honored notion of diversity and that offers from young, innovative companies maintain as equal a "passage" as possible to the smartphone or PC of end users.

Similarly, it can't and shouldn't be permitted for an infrastructure provider to decide which content provider is favored on the market, particularly if the provider's contents have the potential to be relevant for forming opinions. While it is a nice idea of the Telekom to consider start-ups for access to the passing lane in return for a "turnover share", is it really the role of the carrier to select who does and doesn't get to offer promising content? Do start-ups even want to make a deal on turnover share? Isn't this suggestion itself proof of the fact that on the web different classes are planned to compete with the open Internet and question it in its entirety?

The regulation has been adopted and for the time being nothing can be done about it. What matters now are the guidelines of the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communication (BEREC), which is to fine tune the details of this regulation. This body is comprised of representatives from the "national" regulatory authorities from all EU states.

Unlike other European countries where one single body overseas guidelines for telecommunication and audiovisual media contents, the responsibility for these areas in Germany is separate. At the federal level there is the Federal Network Agency (for telecommunication), and content supervision takes place at the state level. Up until now, only the German Federal Network Agency has been involved in the important process in the decisive body on the European level, BEREC, in which the EU regulation will be implemented. A "national regulator" - which is non-existent in federal Germany - should be in attendance. For this reason, it also doesn't suffice that only the Federal Network Agency is involved. No, in keeping with the Basic Law, freedom of expression and diversity also have to play a role in the negotiations. This role has to be assumed by the community of state media authorities.

For a long time now state media authorities have not just had authority on questions concerning the protection of youth and advertising in private broadcasting, but also on offers on the Internet, which are similar to broadcasting. They understand themselves to be an authority which stands up for diversity in content. This is one aspect that has played much too small a part in the debate to date in Germany.

Network neutrality is also a topic that is related to societal diversity and openness.
And who if not media authorities with their oversight for content diversity should take the position of "advocate of the user", and contribute arguments other than strictly economic ones? If there are to be specialized services on the web, then they have to be defined in as narrow a way as possible and limited so that network neutrality won't be in vain and apply only to a small remainder of the web, but, rather, remain the rule. There is consensus on this point among the bodies of the state media authorities and the ARD (consortium of public broadcasters in Germany), which sent a joint statement on this note to Europe. Unfortunately, this signal was ignored. When EU Commissioner Günther Oettinger expresses his surprise now on Twitter about the statements of Timotheus Höttges, he acknowledges in retrospect the distrust which critics voiced to the draft regulation. And it is good to know that he is willing to talk about rectifying the document should the concerns be confirmed.

The dismissive comments in the German media after the decision in Brussels to the effect that this criticism has to be permitted come regrettably too late. The subject which busied specialists and web activists for a long time, indeed, too long has now suddenly reached a broader audience - after the fact. Even the network neutrality working group at the Bund-Länder Commission for convergent media legislation has yet to convene, a fact which is further symptomatic proof of the insufficient public awareness and political importance of the topic in this country. The federal states have to make it clear now that when it comes to the question of network neutrality that they also want to comply with their important task of ensuring diversity and unrestricted access to opinion-forming media content. They have to insist that this is included right away in the work of BEREC. The media authorities also have to sit down at the table.

Otherwise, the pending web guidelines will once again be determined on the German side by technical and economic interests and the task of ensuring diversity will be ignored. The federal states must not let this happen.