A recent poll of over 27,000 internet users across 26 countries found that almost 80% believe internet access to be a fundamental human right. The United Nations has long been pushing for its recognition as such and countries including Estonia, Finland, France and Greece have already pre-empted any international agreement by making internet access a fundamental human right.
Since its inception, control of the internet has been enshrined in a principle which came to be known as ‘net neutrality’ (internet or network neutrality); that all internet users and all web content be treated equally. However, the internet’s status as a vehicle for economic growth has prompted some internet service providers (ISPs) to push for an end to net neutrality by wrestling control away from users in the hope of profiting from both users and content providers.
The repercussions, whilst lucrative for ISPs, have the potential to limit user access to and interaction with web content. For instance, content from large corporations such as Google, Sony or Disney, with whom ISPs are more likely to strike deals, could be prioritised to load more quickly than independently produced media. Services such as video streaming, online gaming and internet telephone calls using VoIP technology could be placed in a premium bracket, with those who choose not to subscribe facing limited bandwidth, thereby restricting their access to information and compromising their browsing experience.
Google recently entered into a web traffic prioritisation agreement with the American ISP Verizon, which analysts have described as a threat to net neutrality. Whilst both companies were swift to affirm their commitment to net neutrality, the agreement refers to ‘managed services’, which are essentially fast lanes occupying bandwidth which is currently used by the internet. Both companies have proposed that these be exempt from any future rules governing the web. This would potentially allow Verizon to charge extra fees to users and content providers for access to the managed services and Google, which is able to pay these fees, would secure swift delivery of its content and an advantage over its competitors.
Whilst the agreement is currently little more than a set of legally unenforceable principles on which both companies agree, the fact remains that two large companies with considerable resources and lobbying influence have negotiated in private on how internet traffic should be regulated. Accordingly, the question arises as to whether companies which stand to profit from the abolition of net neutrality can be trusted to regulate internet access. As ISPs and large content providers push for the ability to self-regulate, internet users will need to consider whether net neutrality is so important that a potential threat to it warrants its protection within the framework of human rights law.