Saturday, March 31, 2012

Should internet be regulated?

Bygone are the days when internet was a luxury or a research work help tool only. Just like electricity, internet today is a “general purpose technology” that enables new methods of production, which impact the entire economy by pioneering innovation,investment, job creation, economic growth, competition and free expression. This media has eventually transformed into a “communication hub”, which invariably has altered the whole landscape of economy. Same has been rightly pointed out in a recent OECD report that “The world is no longer an information economy, but internet economy”. Now excluding someone from access to the internet by stamping gatekeeper restrictions may have serious consequences for their ability to participate in the society, and economy as a whole.
Should internet be regulated?
The novelty of internet though has enabled wide spread innovation and has concurrently allowed all end users to create and determine the success or failure of its content, applications, services and devices; however unlike any other media like TV if you make a few wrong clicks on the internet you might end up in jail. Similarly if one advocates that this “Communication Hub” extends everybody the right of “free speech”, nevertheless it does not gives one the right to slander, the right to publish child pornography just like the right to shout “fire” in a crowded cinema. For the same grounds, one must confess that this growing media along with all its benefits has parallelly endowed considerable challenges of controlling it too, especially to governments’ and the catchphrase attached to it is “Regulate the Internet!” Now what should be the litmus test for regulation if at all it has to be?

If the regulation is indeed necessary what should be the ideology behind it or what exactly should it look like? Should light-handed smart and user centric regulations be introduced then what impact would they make? At the same time we must not negate the fact that technological changes outpace the speed at which policy and regulations can be made and the consequences of technological policy decisions are difficult to predict, therefore the answer to the question “whether internet should be  regulated or not” might be arduous in nature.
Encompassing the fact that success of internet today owes to very limited level of regulations, one might campaign for “Open Internet” or as the jingle goes “Net-Neutrality”, which advocates no gatekeeper restrictions be levied by Internet service providers, regulators or governments on consumers’ access to networks, content, sites, platforms, types of equipment that may be attached and also to the modes of communication. The issue of Net neutrality arose from the point in time when few of the access providers started to discriminate the Internet by restricting access to applications, contents, websites, services and protocols by using techniques such as Peer to Peer(P2P) delay by setting the priority of  BitTorrent protocol(a P2P Protocol) to low, restricting file sharingsoftware’s, deep packet inspection(DPI) or shallow packet inspection(SPI) to discriminate data packets primarily used for censorship, blocking ports e.g. FTP, blocking voice applications over internet like Skpe, blocking IP’s of particular websites and last not least by introducing a tiered pricing model for access or prioritized access to end users. All these issues hindered the “Openness” of internet and fundamentally undermined the principles that have made the Internet such a huge success. No gatekeepers for this medium were defined at the outset. This squabble surfaced up eventually and the advocates of open internet generated the maxim of “Net Neutrality”, which encourages the fact that since no gatekeeper restrictions on this medium were levied initially , therefore governments or the companies that sell the internet access should not be allowed to put gatekeeper restrictions  on this medium and therefore restrict its innovation.
 Today, the future of internet stands at a crossroad where prudent decision making is critical for its growth. We must deliberate on what choices should we adopt? What exactly should be the litmus test for regulating or not regulating the internet? The answer to it is that in both the cases the driving force should be “to enable or protect users’ ability to freely, fully and safely participate online, and whether it will ensure the ongoing openness, quality and integrity of the internet”. With this guideline in mind the choice of regulating the internet, If it all it has to should be adopted with following approach.
The principle of “No blocking” should be underlined. Broadband access providers should not be allowed to block lawful contents, applications, services, devices and other voice and video services. The definition of “lawful content” maybe binary in nature as far as different cultural contexts are related. The content endorsed as freedom of speech in one part of the world might promote religious extremism in other, thereby inflicting fanaticism and intolerance. Similarly racial content might be a source of discrimination and is unconstructive in other cultures. Likewise pornographic and offensive grammar is not supported in any part of the world.  So lawful content should be defined by every government and regulations for lawful content, content filtering and spamming should be outlined. Filtering should be imposed on the principles of transparency, accountability and rule of law. It should involve all the stakeholders, even access providers who should be emphasized to improve end user controls maybe by means of introducing parental controls to its customers.
The Principle of “Transparency” should also be adopted, which supports the disclosure of network management practices, performance characteristics and commercial terms of broadband services. The users should be able to make informed choices about the purchase and use of broadband. Network management practices should involve congestion management, protocol management and device attachment rules. However this does not implies that competitively sensitive information or information that would compromise the network security might should also be made “transparent”, for instance a publically disclosed information relating control of spam by a specific broadband operator might enable the spammer to defeat those measures. Similarly performance characteristics or “QoS” parameters such as latency, actual speed, Network Availability at peak times, Retainability, Bandwidth, Round Trip Time(RTT), Jitter and Packet Loss should be defined by the government or regulator and the access providers should be able to meet the minimum QoS criteria. Similarly commercial agreements like pricing models for different services such as real time applications, or if the operator has introduced any tiered pricing model should be transparent. Therefore the government or regulators should adopt some kind of regulations to encompass the principle of transparency, since this will primarily help to determine the causes of slow performance of content, applications and services to the end user and at the same time it will emphasize the need of quality of service in networks.
Another significant area where regulations should also be introduced is “Cyber Security or Cyber Crime Prevention”. The subject area is sensitive in terms of security threats it posses to national data, national critical infrastructures or national data centers e.g national banks or national security databases etc. Since online communication, social networking and use of credit cards is mushrooming with time, nevertheless most of the online users do not know about the threats they are exposed to for instance viruses, worms, Trojan horses, phishing, denial of service (DOS) attacks, unauthorized access (stealing intellectual property or confidential information) and control system attacks. Though there are numerous measures available to prevent cyber-attacks, there should be proper laws to prevent and counter such breeches, which might also address the Intellectual property right infringements. Here data encryption techniques might also be of real help.
No government should be allowed to implement a complete “turn off switch” or disconnection of an entire region or country from internet. As experienced in countries at the time of political turmoil such as Egypt in 2011, where for the purpose of suppressing political dissent a centralized control of “complete switch off” was exercised. Such practices should be suppressed.
It is encapsulated that regulations must be introduced keeping in mind that countries should not follow the “copy cat” rule and follow each other’s regulations blindly. They should be mindful of their own issues and concerns, while also bearing in mind that defining set of rules in one country has affects on this borderless media, therefore sensible choices in terms of imposing gatekeeper restrictions is the call of time.
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Network_neutrality, retrieved Feb 2, 2012.
  • ACESS discussion paper, June 2011
  • Preserving the Open Internet, FCC, Oct 23, 2011

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