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.
- Vietnam recently banned bloggers and social media users from sharing news stories online (1 Aug 2013) http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/asia/362605/vietnam-to-clamp-down-on-social-media-news-postings
- The country also recently jailed three prominent bloggers for violating "national security laws" through their citizen journalism critiquing government corruption and other social commentary. http://rendezvous.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/25/harsh-prison-sentences-for-3-vietnamese-bloggers/
- The "Great Firewall of China" continues to ban many international websites such as New York Times, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, the Wall Street Journal etc http://rendezvous.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/23/adding-more-bricks-to-the-great-firewall-of-china In a "dizzying array of party and government bodies", China observes very strict information control through what has been called the "Ministry of Truth", a loose collective term referring to the Central Propaganda Department, the Internet Affairs office of the Information Office of the State Council (SCIO), the General Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television and other ancillary ministries involved with propaganda controls. http://cmp.hku.hk/2012/03/07/5372/
- Singapore recently required that news websites be individually licensed, and would have to put up a performance bond of SGD$50,000 which could be forfeited if they run afoul of Singapore content laws. http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/news-websites-to-be-individually-license/690226.html
- Indonesia routinely blocks or shuts down pornographic websites in online sweeps, particularly around the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. http://news.cnet.com/8301-1023_3-57476330-93/indonesia-shuts-down-1-million-porn-web-sites/
- In a similar vein, Malaysia jailed two infamous local sex bloggers for inciting religious enmity by posting a photograph of them eating pork while wishing their viewers "happy breaking fast" (Muslims do not eat pork as it is haram/forbidden.) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/18/alvin-and-vivian-jailed-malaysia-sex-bloggers_n_3616657.html
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.
- In Thailand Sept 2011, Mr Surapak Puchaisaeng created a Facebook profile with defamatory links and images about the Thai King, and was arrested for violation of lese majeste as well. http://www.zdnet.com/blog/facebook/man-arrested-for-allegedly-insulting-thailands-king-on-facebook/3333
- In this case, does Facebook have any liability for carrying content violating local laws?
- At the request of the German government, Twitter censored its first user account in Oct 2012 (a neo-Nazi user) under a new reworded policy that gives it "the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country -- while keeping it available in the rest of the world." http://news.yahoo.com/twitter-censors-users-first-time-031151265.html
- Thailand was very happy about it http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20120130/as-thailand-censorship, but the world (okay just free speech advocates), not so much http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20120127/us-twitter-censorship.
- Thank goodness some journalists still have a sense of proportion http://thenextweb.com/twitter/2012/01/27/twitter-isnt-censoring-you-your-government-is
- CraigsList (NY) tried valiantly to take down a man’s ad to sell a 2-month old baby on its classified ad platform – only to have the ad put up again a day later. Should CraigsList have reported this to the authorities, instead of relying on its users to report the offender to the police? (To avoid keeping you in suspense, he’s been arrested by the NYPD.) http://www.silive.com/news/index.ssf/2013/08/staten_island_man_tries_to_sel.html
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?
- In 2011, AT&T accused Google of using "algorithms that highlight some information, favor certain websites, and even omit some sites altogether." http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2011/01/regulating-googles-results-law-prof-calls-search-neutrality-incoherent/
- In 2012 (and without any irony whatsoever), travel review sites such as Expedia and TripAdvisor accused Google of abusing its market dominant position to disadvantage competitors in the hotel and restaurant review business. Google operates Google Places, which can be considered a rival service to travel review sites (think Yelp, Zagat) as it allows users to post reviews of hotels and restaurants on Google Places. http://www.out-law.com/en/articles/2012/april/tripadvisor-adds-weight-to-eu-competition-complaints-about-google/
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).
- South Korea regulators have allowed three local mobile operators charge extra or block VoIP applications - effectively destroying any hope of a level playing field for local mVoIP app Kakao Talk's competitors such as Skype, Lync, Fring, Viber, Line and other similar services http://www.pcworld.com/article/258650/south_korean_telcos_get_ok_to_charge_extra_for_mobile_voip_apps.html
- Indonesia's Telkomsel launched “Facebook by Fonetwish” in 2012, which allows their subscribers to access their Facebook profiles WITHOUT the need to subscribe to a data plan. http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Telkomsel+Launches+Facebook+by+Fonetwish+in+Indonesia.-a0325570315
- Malaysia’s Digi had a deal with Opera in 2011 which allowed Digi users to download the Opera browser free-of-charge over the carrier's network. http://www.mobile88.com/news/read.asp?file=/2011/3/24/20110324043650
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.
- Skype offered free Wi-Fi in US airports from 21-27 Dec, and also to NYC New Years' Eve in 2011 http://news.cnet.com/8301-30686_3-57350153-266/happy-new-year-from-skype-free-wi-fi-in-nyc-for-new-years-eve/
- Google teamed up with Boingo in Aug 2012 to offer free Wi-Fi zones in a number of major US city malls and airports. The service is purportedly still available, and looks set to grow http://www.theverge.com/2012/8/21/3257727/google-boingo-more-free-wi-fi-hotspots
- Google has also started a number of their Google Free Zone - most recently in the Philippines - where mobile users on FEATURE phones can use Google+, Google Search and Gmail without incurring data charges (it is not optimized for smartphones) http://www.google.com.ph/intl/en/mobile/landing/freezone/stp.html
- Facebook launched Facebook Zero in 45 countries in May 2010, where 0.facebook.com brings phone users to a mobile Facebook site optimized for speed, and has no data charges. http://www.facebook.com/blog/blog.php?post=391295167130
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
* 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