An Afternoon In Bern: Network Neutrality Redux

Last Thursday, I sat on a panel with Swiss Telecommunications Association President Peter Grütter, Swisscom CEO Carsten Schloter, and Green National Councilor Balthasar Glättli, on the subject of network neutrality, and whether legal protection therefor is necessary in Switzerland. Not surprisingly, the panel was of different opinions on this matter. Swisscom and the telecom industry group support self-regulation, making the very good point that laws change too slowly with respect to Internet technology too quickly to be effective; and Glättli making the equally good point that as several obvious violations of neutrality can already be observed in Switzerland, trusting the industry to regulate itself has so far had dubious results.

Coverage (in German) of the event can be found at computerworld.ch and the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, and if you’ve got 55 minutes to kill, video of the event itself (also in German) is available at the website of the Parliamentary Group on Digital Sustainability.

Encouraging is that there seems to be agreement on what I’d consider the most important points: network neutrality, in the sense of fair and equal access for all to the Internet, is crucial to its survival, and regulation thereof at the level of technical detail is likely to be ineffective and is indeed dangerous. There seemed to be no desire on the point of the industry to split regulatory domains into wired and wireless (which, like the 1996 US telecommunications act which established last-mile competition, but only over copper, could have perverse effects). On the point of those existing violations of neutrality in Switzerland (largely blocking or limiting of competitive applications), Carsten Schloter remarked, “Whoever is [doing that], has already lost,” an encouraging sign for fair competition in the industry.

As to how to protect this, there is of course less agreement, with Mr. Grütter and Mr. Schloter arguing for self-regulation, and Mr. Glättli for legislation. I can see the former point; given the relative speeds of innovation in telecom and in legislation, the risk of getting legislation wrong and ending up either with an irrelevant regulation or, worse, a damaging one, is nonzero. On the other hand, if one takes self-regulation as the status quo, other operators in Switzerland apparently don’t agree with Mr. Schloter’s opinion, and would seem to have shown that it’s not working.

Therefore, I personally tend to come down on the side of legal protection for network neutrality, but defined in such a way as to constrain anticompetitive behavior in the market, to protect access to the network for smaller players in the industry as well as for consumers, and to explicitly maximize the freedom of innovation (both technical and business) within those constraints.

One first step in this direction could be a legal obligation to transparency, for which there seems to be limited agreement. In this case operators offering unequal terms or selectively blocking traffic would be required to advertise this fact; the theory is that this provides an incentive in the market for them not to do so. This could work in a small market like Switzerland with last-mile competition both in the fixed and mobile space, but does nothing for mostly-monopolized markets like the United States, and does nothing to prevent future consolidation, either.

In any case, the conversation continues, and I look forward to taking part.

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Brian Trammell
Bike Dad, Photographer, Management Trainee

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