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Net Neutrality and Cloud Development

The Asia Cloud Computing Association recognizes the importance of free access to data in creating an even playing field for cloud deployment and tracks it in the Cloud Readiness Index (CRI).

While ISPs have the right to tier the SPEED of delivery (thus the price and speed differentials between a business vs. a home Internet connection*), net neutrality advocates that delivery pipelines should not be interfering or making judgment calls on the content that is delivered. Conversely, ISPs and carriers should not be giving preferential treatment to certain kinds of data. In essence, net neutrality demands that data delivery services should be content blind.

Is net neutrality important for cloud development?

Net neutrality promotes the free flow of information and data both within and between geographic regions, enhances democratic dialogue, and runs in line with the ethos of an interconnected and interdependent world. That, in a nutshell, is the ideal of net neutrality. The reality - as with most of Internet policy these days – is that we are far from this ideal, and the issues surrounding net neutrality are far from simple.

The power of cloud computing can only be harnessed if information can be freely accessed and manipulated. Data is fast becoming the new currency of this century. And information is playing an increasingly critical role in the supply chain for businesses and governments. Limiting access to information will only hamper the development of this supply chain.

Where exactly are the tripwires when navigating the morass of net neutrality issues?

Censorship, Freedom of Speech, Freedom of the Press

Firstly, government censorship of content. While advocates for free speech may squawk protests, governments have a sovereign, functional right to determine national information policy, no matter how restrictive. This includes controls on censorship and limits on free and responsible speech – which in many religious states (such as the Vatican, or Islamic states like Malaysia and Indonesia) amounts to a moral duty. Many governments have exercised this prerogative, and we see that enacted to varying degrees of severity.

Fuzzy Intermediary Liability

Secondly, if indeed carriers and ISPs are to be “content blind”, are vendors and carriers responsible for the content they carry?

  • In a highly public spat, Indonesia required Research In Motion (RIM; now Blackberry) to filter pornographic content on information and websites accessed on its devices. http://news.cnet.com/8301-13506_3-20027979-17.html
    • Can we thus accuse Blackberry of not adhering to the principles of net neutrality?

While content providers, ISPs and other content pipelines should carry all content equally, many do have to abide by local jurisdictions (and in many cases, respecting local cultures and sensitivities even if not explicitly stated.) This places an undue burden on carriers to manage user content, which is intrusive (in many cases illegal), and is nearly impossible to implement.

Intermediaries are sometimes responsible for monitoring/reporting/censoring certain activities
What about the more clear-cut situations where ISPs are hosting websites which enable or promote child exploitation, human trafficking, or other human rights abuses which place lives in danger? In the first instance, the law goes after the offender (the website owner), but in the absence of other clear laws, are ISPs then liable for monitoring and/or taking down the content? In other situations, when is legal intercept by governments and their agencies allowed?

This question has grown increasingly important because the principles behind intermediary liability are now being looked at as the foundation for regulating user-generated content platform hosted virtually or on cloud platforms, such as Facebook, YouTube, Blogger, Twitter, Skype, and other similar applications and platforms. No longer simply being applied to ISPs and telecommunications providers, intermediary liability has hit home in a number of cases.

To be fair, it must be noted that in many, many cases, content platforms such as eBay, Facebook, YouTube, Blogger, Twitter, and other similar platforms often have a NTD (Notice and Take Down) procedure whereby they themselves or the relevant authorities can request for content to be taken down, and a reasonable amount of time given to the offending party to remove the egregious content.

Returning to the issue of intermediary liability, these examples beg the question – where is the line for liability drawn? It seems virtually impossible to draw this line in the international domain, and policy on this matter has been piecemeal at best, with some countries drawing up “safe harbour” provisions for quarantining the responsibility for questionable data travelling across borders – or even just across the street.

Yet in recent years, we have seen how web-locker and file hosting/sharing services such as Megaupload and BitTorrent (and previously, the gNutella network, Napster and KaZaA) have been made liable for the content stored and shared through their services. If Megaupload can be shut down for enabling illegal file sharing, aren’t similar cloud services such as Amazon Web Services, Dropbox, Box.com, and SkyDrive at risk of prosecution as well, with the only difference being a matter of scale?


The Business of Business

Much of how the Internet is navigated these days is dependent on the search engine you use. And how well each search engine performs is determined by how well their search algorithms function. So technically, net neutrality is a given – may be best search algorithm win. Or is it?

This issue can be somewhat alleviated with an individual’s choice of search engines, but truly truly how many effective search engines are there?

To muddy the waters further, some telcos and ISPs have started offering free or preferential data access to certain websites or web applications, ostensibly in a bid to gain a competitive advantage; their chorus of “we don’t want to become a dumb pipe” driving many of them in their race to deliver more value-added services (VAS).

Many applications and cloud content carriers have also started to turn this model completely topsy-turvy, by building their own networks and/or inked deals with private Internet service providers, creating pockets of Internet which deliver preferential content. The perfectly sound rationale is: it's our network, we leased it and are now offering it to our customers/users, so therefore we can deliver what we want on it. So technically, the terms of service are not for delivery of a neutral access point to the Internet, but one which provides preferential access to those who built it.

Having preferential access in these cases sounds fair from a business point of view: after all, these are private companies who should be allowed to differentiate services between different customers – airlines do it all the time with their passengers and as one credit card used to say, membership has its privileges. But the implications go beyond simple Wi-Fi access at airports and public places; with Google building pockets of fiber-connected cities in the US (https://fiber.google.com), and rolling out wireless broadband through TV White Spaces technology in Africa (https://sites.google.com/site/tvwsafrica2013), who then regulates for net neutrality? Can we even be calling for net neutrality in these cases where private companies build and completely own the entire internet connectivity infrastructure?

Net Neutrality: A Solution In Search of A Problem?

Net neutrality has sometimes been called "a solution in search of a problem" http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2009/12/big-cable-pro-net-neutrality-arguments-turn-first-amendment-on-its-head/ This article has covered why this isn’t quite the case: net neutrality promotes the free flow of information and data, and flows in line with the ethos of an interconnected and interdependent world. The benefits of cloud computing and only be harnessed if information can be accessed and manipulated, and some modicum of security and confidentiality can be assured. Regulatory regimes which promote access to information in a consistent, predicable manner are needed.  Transparent policies which encourage trust are crucial.

The Asia Cloud Computing Association’s Cloud Readiness Index (CRI) recognizes the importance that the free access to data plays in creating an even playing field for cloud deployment. To assess how well countries are doing, we derived the CRI scores from the rankings from Freedom House's Freedom of the Press 2012, and composited them with the assessment of Internet and digital media from the same report.  This assessment gives us a glimpse into how freely news information can be gathered, shared and accessed in the countries under scrutiny.

Ms. Lim May-Ann
Research Director, TRPC Pte Ltd
ACCA Member of Public Policy & Regulatory Working Group
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

* For an Internet access price comparison, you may be interested in reading the Asia Pacific Carriers Coalition’s Access Price Benchmark Report 2013 here: http://tinyurl.com/apcc2013

 

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