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The net's neutral future

Kay-Alexander Scholz / gswJune 23, 2013

Debate is heating up on net neutrality - whether Internet providers can discriminate against certain content in a bid for profits. That question is a central point on this week's agenda in the German parliament.

The back of a Internet router Photo: Rolf Vennenbernd/dpa +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The Internet has a problem: It's getting fuller and fuller. The blame lies particularly with video providers, who offer platforms where much data is transferred. US IT company Cisco expects that online video traffic will double by 2017. As a result, many Internet providers are being forced to increase their capacity due to the general growth in data exchange. It's a process that costs a great deal of money.

But when it comes to profiting from this additional traffic, Internet service providers (ISPs) are typically left out. The billions generated from ad revenue go to the likes of Facebook and Google. One way in which telecommunications and Internet providers are trying to address the issue is by abandoning the principle of net neutrality.

Two steps to more money

Until now, most ISPs have allowed the exchange of data without looking into individual data packets and prioritizing certain types of content. But some ISPs are out to change that by instituting a two-step process in the aim of generating new sources of revenue.

The first step involves rationing Internet access for customers. The second step involves offering deals to huge content providers like Google or Facebook that would allow them to dodge such rationing by paying fees. Smaller and less powerful service providers would be left empty-handed.

In early April in Germany, Bonn-based telecommunications giant Telekom embarked on such a policy by announcing it planned, in the future, to reduce users' surfing speed once a certain monthly data limit had been reached. The company explained that those who want to surf the Internet beyond that limit should also pay more. However, the company's own services and content would be exempt from the speed reduction - a breach of the net neutrality principle.

network cables Photo: Jens Wolf/dpa +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Deutsche Telekom's plan to cut speeds met with major resistance onlineImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The uproar in response was immense, particularly online. Germany has no law that guarantees net neutrality and that could stop Telekom from continuing with its plans.

Secret deals

The legal situation in Germany is reflected in most countries around the world. The Netherlands, Slovenia and Chile are the only countries to have codified net neutrality in law. And in the birthplace of the Internet, the United States, debate on the topic is raging. There, however, the problem gets even thornier.

US law currently distinguishes between Internet access used by companies making their content available and the so-called "last mile," which refers to the final leg of making data available to the user via the Internet. Net neutrality is guaranteed for the last mile in the US, but not for the other parts of the Internet. The "Wall Street Journal" recently reported that a secret deal has been struck between US internet providers and Google, Microsoft and Facebook, whereby the latter companies pay to have their data prioritized in networks. Company representatives explained the move by saying they had no choice.

Now initial rumors are emerging online that Germany's Telekom is also planning such a deal with Google.

Successful petition to parliament

19-year-old student Johannes Scheller from the German city Tübingen took steps to ensure that Telekom's plans would be discussed in Germany's lower house of parliament, the Bundestag. He created an online petition at the Bundestag website that received 50,000 signatures in just four days. That's the number required for a parliamentary committee to take up the topic introduced in a petition. Although it will be discussed by just a small circle of Bundestag members and not at a general meeting, the issue of net neutrality is now officially on the Bundestag agenda.

Screenshoot of the Bundestag's website for petitions Source: http://www.bundestag.de/bundestag/ausschuesse17/a02/index.jsp
Some 76,000 people signed the net neutrality petition

In the petition, Scheller wrote, "May the German Bundestag pass a law that requires all Internet service providers to treat users' data packets equally, regardless of their content or where they came from. In particular, no content, service or service provider will be put at a disadvantage, artificially slowed down or, above all else, blocked."

Under pressure

Alongside the petition, the German public continues to discuss the issue, and pressure is mounting on Telekom. The company has since announced it would not reduce speeds by as much as originally planned. Instead of the painfully slow 384 kilobits per second originally announced, the surfing speed would be reduced to two megabits per second. But the company intends to stand by its original concept.

Members of the federal government have also seen a need to act on the issue. Until now, the ruling coalition consisting of the Christian conservative CDU/CSU and free-market liberal FDP - in contrast to the opposition Social Democratic, Green and Left parties - has rejected introducing a net neutrality law.

Philipp Rösler Photo: Tim Brakemeier/dpa / Eingestellt von wa
Rösler said he wanted to introduce a net neutrality lawImage: picture-alliance/dpa

But FDP party head and Economics Minister Philipp Rösler has now promised such legislation. He plans to introduce a regulation that would force internet providers to transport all of their data to customers at the same speed. As such, providers could not promise faster speeds to third parties in exchange for a fee. The law is intended to be finished by the end of this legislative period, which concludes on September 22.

Time will tell what shape the law will take after it passes parliamentary hearings. Internet activists like Markus Beckedahl remain skeptical. Beckedahl said he fears that the federal government will do nothing about Telekom's broader plans to drop surfing speeds for users after a certain data limit is reached, with the result that the same fees will have to be paid to fast-track certain data.

Summer debate?

On Monday (24.06.2013), the parliamentary committee set to discuss Scheller's petition will meet, and their discussion will be presented live on www.bundestag.de. Before a committee numbering up to 26 members, Scheller will present his concerns. On the same day, a Bundestag subcommittee on new media will also take up the topic of net neutrality and hear from experts, including a Telekom representative.

It is improbable that the petition will directly result in a law. Germany sees many petitions addressed each year - and as of 2005, they can be conducted online. In 2012, 15,724 petitions were created, which averages to 43 per day. Thus far, none have resulted in a law. However, Scheller's petition has already had a significant effect by drawing public attention to the issue of net neutrality.

The Pirate Party, which is fighting for entry into the federal parliament, has announced that net neutrality will be a central part of its election campaign in 2013, signifying that the debate may well continue through to federal elections in September.