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Internet

Net Neutrality Has an Unlikely Enemy in Germany's Frau Merkel

Net neutrality was a hot topic in the early part of 2014. With the US FCC reconsidering its position on the subject, some of the largest internet companies in the world – Google, Facebook, Twitter, the usual suspects – rallied together to oppose the planned changes.

Since then they've all gone rather quiet. Perhaps they're still lobbying behind the scenes. Perhaps they feel that their work here is done. Perhaps they just don't care anymore. Perhaps they've worked out that they could make money out of a non-neutral net. Who knows? The issue hasn't gone away, though, in the US or elsewhere and the arguments continue to rage. That's not surprising, since it's a battle between money and principles – or at least that's how it's often portrayed.

The concept of net neutrality is simple enough: it's the idea that all traffic, whatever it might contain, is treated – and routed – with equal priority. No special favours for your legal movie downloads, no queue-jumping for your voice-over-IP packets, no information super-duper highway for government e-proclamations. All data is equal and shall be treated as such.

Proponents of a free internet, free speech and various other free things will tell you that net neutrality is important because it gives everyone equal footing: your blog on Hebridean cheese-making can go head-to-head with the pontifications of the Prime Minister, without eager readers having to wait twice as long to read your lovingly-crafted words as they would those of the PM.

These people say that if net neutrality is removed, ISPs and other data carriers will be able to charge more for high-priority traffic, which will result in a two-tier internet. Those who can pay will have high data serving speeds. Those who can't, won't. Eventually the internet would become like television: a few large corporations would have control over its output, while everyone else would be consumers. The net-consumers would have little to no say in the creative process and, on the political front, far less opportunity to complain, protest and debate online.

From the point of view of the ISPs and data carriers, removing the "laws" of net neutrality (which do have legal effect in some countries) would give them the freedom to make more money out of their rich customers. Or, as they might put it with their PR hats on, why shouldn't a huge corporation pay more for its traffic than a poor little blogger who can't afford so much? And, as far as commerce goes, that's fair enough.

Except that many of those same companies received huge public subsidies to build the communications infrastructure that they now want to monetise; infrastructure that was originally put in place thanks to the vision of people who sought equal internet access for all. Then again, why shouldn't some of that cost be recouped from its biggest users?

As with all the best arguments, then, it's possible to understand both sides' perspectives. That's why politicians around the globe have been squeezed into the middle ground, wanting to satisfy the commercial urges of the data/telecommunications companies whilst simultaneously not being seen to trample over the fragile digital freedoms that their citizens, rightly or wrongly, believe are theirs. As such, governments have been treading a fine line.

Until now, that is, because Angela Merkel has marched right over that line. At the Digitising Europe conference in Berlin in early December, she stated that she was in favour of two categories of internet provision: one for free and the other for "special services". Modest words, perhaps, but they've created a storm.

Merkel's given reasons for this stance are plausible enough. Those "special services" might include secure government communications in the event of a national emergency, health service data connections and police networks. Though it seems unlikely that things would end there: once legal loopholes are created, they tend to be exploited.

The German chancellor's position is somewhat undermined by opposition claims that Merkel and her associates are pandering to German telecommunications companies, who spend a lot of money lobbying the CDU (Christian Democratic Union) party in order to get what they want.

Lobbying is, of course, a part of democracy. Not necessarily the most edifying part, yet not actually illegal. But what's depressing for some ordinary Germans – and for net neutrality campaigners around the world – is that this is happening in Germany of all places.

Germany, where Merkel was so vitriolic about the US spying on her. Germany, where privacy is a much stronger issue than in many other parts of the world. Germany, which regularly takes on technology giants that it believes are abusing their power (a few examples here) - and wins. Surely Germany wouldn't permit a two-tier internet, destroying yet another pillar of online freedom, taking another step towards reducing engaged online citizens to mere consumers?

As someone who was born in Germany and has a fondness for the place, I'm not entirely surprised by Merkel's position, which is not to say I support it. Germany is sometimes portrayed as being a bastion of free speech, equality and admirable principles. And to a certain extent that's true. But it has politicians, and politicians will do what they feel is right. Not necessarily what's right for the vocal net neutrality campaigners. Not necessarily what's right for the public in the long run. Just what's right.

Angela Merkel apparently thinks that it's right that some internet packets are more equal than others. That pits her against the stated position of US president Obama and some other national leaders. It will be interesting to see if widespread international coverage – most of it negative – will persuade her to change her mind. If not, Germany could become the unlikely birthplace of the two-tier internet.

 

Freelance technology journalist Alex Cruickshank grew up in England and emigrated to New Zealand several years ago, where he runs his own writing business, Ministry of Prose.

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Alex Cruickshank

Alex Cruickshank has been writing about technology and business since 1994. He has lived in various far-flung places around the world and is now based in Berlin.  

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