When Internet providers try to control content — Peter Yeo
JULY 30 — Can telecom network operators (telcos) or Internet service providers (ISPs) control the way you consume Web content?
Well, theoretically they can. According to industry experts I have spoken to, the throttling, blocking and prioritising of certain content or data requests over others is technically possible, even with third party ISPs.
To a certain extent, it is already happening to mobile phone plans in Indonesia and the Philippines, where some basic plans come with phone and SMS capability, with free Facebook data access.
In the United States, Comcast, a company that started as a cable television service then added Internet access service later, has been offering its on-demand video over its own “managed network” with no imposed data cap while subjecting monthly data caps on content from rival online providers such as Hulu and Netflix, reported Bloomberg’s Businessweek last month. The US Department of Justice has begun an anti-trust probe into this practice.
Comcast defended its tiered system, saying there is a difference between watching a video on “public Internet” and watching the same movie through the provider’s on-demand service, which they say is a private network.
By using the phrase “public Internet”, Comcast, with other Internet providers, want users to accept that they own separate, special “Internets”.
There is a reason why Comcast did not create a “Comcasternet”. The Internet beat out private networks because it grew faster and created more value, and every network benefits when all networks interconnect.
For cable companies to claim now that they did in fact build a private network and that it should not be subject to the same rules as the rest of the Internet is a tough sell, said Businessweek in the same report.
And in a 2005 hearing before the US Supreme Court, Comcast, with other cable companies, said the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) could not regulate them as “telecommunication services” — Internet access providers — because cable companies bundled their Internet access with what the FCC classifies as “information services” such as Web hosting and email addresses. And the justices agreed, 6 to 3.
IDA’S NET NEUTRALITY POLICY
In Singapore, generally the relevant regulators would have to review the circumstances of each case in order to determine if a company operating in multiple sectors has breached any competition rules, said an Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) spokesperson.
On the specific issue of provision of access to Internet content, ISPs are subject to IDA’s Net Neutrality policy.
Broadly, it seeks to facilitate a competitive Internet access market via IDA’s Telecom Competition Code, to reduce incentives for ISPs to engage in blocking or discriminatory conduct that restricts consumer choice; improve information transparency, for consumers to better understand Internet broadband service offerings and ISPs’ traffic management practices; and protect consumer interests as well as ensure consumers enjoy a reasonable quality of Internet access, via Quality of Service (QoS) requirements and a prohibition against ISPs blocking access to legitimate content on the Internet.
The prohibition against blocking extends to the imposition of discriminatory practices, restrictions, charges or other measures which will render any legitimate Internet content effectively inaccessible, even if such actions may not be viewed as outright blocking, the IDA added.
However, IDA’s Net Neutrality policy framework does not prohibit ISPs from carrying out traffic management so long as their practices do not violate market competition rules, IDA’s QoS requirements or other aspects of the Net Neutrality policy.
TECHNICALLY, THROTTLING COULD HAPPEN, BUT ...
Professor John Ure, director, Technology Research Project Corporate (TRPC), a boutique consulting firm focusing on the economics, policy and regulation of telecommunications and information technology in the Asia-Pacific, said: “Technically throttling could happen, but Singapore is a small market and the regulator (IDA) would almost certainly step in.
“As Internet access providers come to rely less upon the SingTel network and more on the new national fibre network, this issue should not be a problem for them.
“However, telco broadband access providers may be tempted to throttle selected OTT services, especially those they see as competing with their voice and video business; that would be their natural instinct and the regulator needs to insist that new services based upon new technologies are not unfairly stifled.”
Over the top (or OTT) refers to video, television and other services provided over the Internet, and is provided using an open broadband connection independently of the user’s ISP.
Should telcos or ISPs decide to limit access to OTT in favour of their own content, they can technically channel users to their proprietary content — either with a carrot or a stick.
But it would be an upward struggle — not to mention anti-competitive — as Internet users will not take kindly to any kind of discrimination.
And, if content from other providers proves compelling enough, the online population may just have the muscle to block business decisions. — Today
* Peter Yeo is deputy digital media editor at Today.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.