Net Neutrality in Norway – three major aspects

by Frode Sorensen

Council of Europe

Council of Europe organized a Multi-stakeholder dialogue on net neutrality 29-30 May in Strasbourg. The event was a follow-up of the “Declaration of the Committee of Minsters on net neutrality”, and included looking at various national initiatives and legislations and discussing how member states could react and develop policy.

Speech given at Council of Europe by Frode Sorensen, Norwegian Post and Telecommunications Authority.

Thank you for the invitation to present the Norwegian approach to net neutrality during this multi-stakeholder dialogue at the Council of Europe.

I will focus my presentation on three major aspects:

  1. Co-regulation
  2. Why transparency is not sufficient
  3. Application-agnosticism

1. Co-regulation

In Norway we chose a co-regulatory approach to net neutrality when we started back in 2006. Remember, we were first-movers in Europe, and there was not very much precedence to follow. Furthermore, the net neutrality debate was relatively immature at the time, and a statutory approach could potentially lead to wrong decisions carved in stone.

Co-regulation must not be confused with self-regulation. Co-regulation requires far more involvement of the regulator. The Norwegian Post and Telecommunications authority (NPT) took an active role, leading the work with a clear goal to preserve the Internet as an open platform. We invited the three stakeholder groups Internet service providers, content & application providers and consumer associations. NPT let these groups balance each other’s interests, leading to the guidelines in 2009.

Compared with statutory net neutrality, the process of developing the guidelines provided a forum for exchange of views among the stakeholders. The result of this has been that the stakeholders were tutored in the discipline of net neutrality, influencing the public debate in a constructive way. The industry also ended up having an ownership to the guidelines, thereby making it difficult to object to them.

Every year after that, NPT has organized follow-up activities, discussing the developments of the Internet industry and evaluating the guidelines. Compared to the breaches to net neutrality in some other European countries, the situation in Norway is rather clean. However, there have been some objections towards the guidelines, and regulatory measures will be considered if the voluntary agreement shows insufficient.

2. Why transparency is not sufficient

In many discussions on net neutrality it is argued that enhanced transparency, together with easy switching in a competitive market, is sufficient to achieve net neutrality. I would argue against this. It is true that transparency to some extend empowers end users to make more informed choices, of course.

Even though end users are allowed to switch, you also need to ask: Can you switch to an equivalent alternative? How easy is it to switch a service bundle like triple play? Do you really bother to switch, taking into account all the hassle? And most of all, what about the end user in the other end with whom you want to communicate?

The latter is related to what we call the network effect. Internet communication is not like any other goods or service. You do not want to communicate with yourself! The utility value in communication lies in the possibility to reach others. Therefore, even though you may switch to an unrestricted access, you will be affected by any other restricted end user.

3. Application-agnosticism

What is the cause of the success of the Internet that we want to preserve? Why has the Internet proved more successful than the traditional telephony network or cable-TV networks? Would we ever been able to see applications like Wikipedia, Youtube and Facebook in such networks? And let us not forget the European examples like the web itself as well as Spotify and Skype. Why is this innovation flourished on the Internet?

Unprecedented innovation has been facilitated by the decoupling of the application layer from the underlying network layer. This decoupling appears in different names, like mere conduit, or the end-to-end principle. The point is that the network is blind when it comes to what kind of content and applications that are carried, allowing innovation without permission, as opposed to traditional communication technologies.

Even though traffic growth is steep, this is nothing new. This is manifestation of the Internet success! This is actual a tremendous business opportunity, lots of bandwidth to sell! Furthermore, when a data low of e.g. 1 Mbit/s is carried, the traffic load is independent of which application that is used. This means that ISPs can manage traffic per user instead of per application and thereby achieve the same effect, if limiting of traffic is necessary.

Happy innovation and thank you all!

Advertisements