The Government appears disinclined to let internet providers charge online companies for “fast lanes” that could give some online services an edge over others on the internet.
The issue of net neutrality, or whether internet providers should treat all online services and content equally, has been raging in the United States following a January court ruling that allows internet providers to discriminate between different third-party services.
The ruling has raised the prospect that telcos such as Verizon could, for example, charge Netflix or Facebook for the online equivalent of a “toll road” to customer’s homes that would ensure their online television and social media sites were faster and more reliable than competitors.
The United States Federal Communications Communications is rushing to shore up the principle of net neutrality in the wake of the appeal court ruling. It is drafting new rules that would prevent internet providers from blocking websites or particular services, or from engaging in “commercially unreasonable practices”.
But internet advocates such as the Electronic Freedom Foundation fear those rules may not go far enough to fully protect the diversity of the internet from deep-pocketed big businesses that might be willing to pay for premium service.
Adams said New Zealand would need to have a debate on net neutrality and the issue would be tackled in a review of the Telecommunications Act that needs to kick off before September 2016.
The approach taken here would have “significant implications” both for the way telecommunications companies earned their revenues and innovation on the internet, Adams said.
The Commerce Commission had previously signalled the issue should not become a hot one if internet providers were transparent about what they did, the internet access market was competitive and it was easy to switch between providers.
But Adams said it was likely to become more important as internet providers consolidated and launched more of their own content services.
Some internet providers have already chipped away at the edges of net neutrality, for example by not counting consumption of some online services such as Trade Me and Sky Television’s former iSky service towards customers’ monthly broadband traffic caps.
Although Adams said she supported the “core principle” of net neutrality, she indicated there might be a need to depart from the principle of equal treatment in some situations, given internet providers offered their services on a “best efforts” basis with no guarantee of reliability and that might not be appropriate for all types of services that would be delivered online.
Adams told the Nethui she was looking to the internet community to “spearhead the debate”.
“New Zealand has not yet had to have this debate in any formal way as internet providers have not sought to push the boundaries of consumer acceptability. But I have no doubt it is a debate we will have in time, so I am very interested in what is happening in the United States and the European Union at present,” she said.
Labour communications spokeswoman Clare Curran, who has described threats to net neutrality as being about “power and vested interests”, said she was glad Adams had addressed the issue at the conference.
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