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Net neutrality is worth saving, but business bias is a concern, says OU academic

In the light of protests against threats to "net neutrality" by many of the big internet giants recently the OU's Robert Herian, Lecturer in Law, explains why its such a worthy cause yet warns one must still be conscious of the competitive bias which exists online already:

"The importance of maintaining net neutrality cannot be overstated if we are to preserve the closest thing we have to a digital commons.  That is, cyberspace that invites and provides all people regardless of their economic, cultural, social or political status and so on with an equal voice.

I see a contradiction in the arguments presently being made in defence of net neutrality.

The key complaint of those who fear net neutrality is under threat is that ISPs and those who control internet infrastructure (the "pipes" through which information travels) will enforce their right to speed-up or slow-down areas of internet traffic, depending upon whether or not they happen to be stakeholders in the source of that traffic. For example, the fear is that an ISP who has a deal with a particular shopping platform will be able to guarantee the success of that particular platform.

Clearly the dominance of ISPs or any other actor in this way demonstrates commercial advantage and bias against potential competitors online. It is therefore an example of economics trumping the politics of net neutrality.

The problem I see however is what net neutrality as we presently find it actually represents. After all, whilst competition is apparently able to thrive, the recent decision by the European Commission to fine Google for breaching its competition rules by elevating their shopping service above all others on their search engine reveals that things aren’t nearly as neutral as perhaps they should be.

In other words, what amounts to unfair commercial advantage is being sought daily by different actors online and the promise of competition as a means of regulating such behaviour is not enough to restore a fair balance.

My point is therefore that in defending net neutrality it is important to recognize the nature of the status quo online. Perhaps the threat among others that the Trump administration’s approach to net neutrality reveals, is an indication that what is needed is a significant retreat from even the present scope of commercial influence online.

To illustrate what I mean by this we can look at an interesting comparison between net neutrality and another news story regarding the international communities’ drafting of new regulations to prevent further environmental damage in the high seas. In both cases, although clearly regarding very different contexts, the issue turns on the idea of safeguarding a "global commons".

Net neutrality, much like the principle of the high seas, is based on the collective ownership and, perhaps more importantly, responsibility of all people to guarantee and protect the ecosystem in question.  For me it is these principles, held in common by all, which ought to be foremost when it comes to deciding the online future. "