By Sam Sokol
A few weeks ago, Israel’s Ministry of Communications showed itself to be a progressive institution, at least in the matter of Internet freedoms, when it proposed an amendment to Israel’s Communications Law in which “Telecommunication operators will be obliged to guarantee the principle of network neutrality.”
Few have heard of the idea of net neutrality and even fewer care about it, but it is the backbone of the modern information economy and affects all of us a great deal. In a nutshell, net neutrality has been, thus far, the guiding principle that has driven innovation in the United States and other Western countries whose economies are increasingly dependent on the Internet. What net neutrality means is that the service provider you use to connect to the Internet, whether it be cable, dial-up, or DSL, provides as a “dumb pipe,” providing you with content. You pay for a certain number of bytes of data and you can use this allotment in any way you see fit. As long as you don’t exceed your allotment, you do not pay more, for instance, if you stream a movie than if you play Words With Friends on Facebook.
This freedom to innovate on the Web without being subject to tariffs from ISPs based on the kind of data you are provided has led to the growth of innovative Web businesses and the explosion of e‑commerce, telecommunications, and streaming services, such as Netflix, the iTunes Store, Skype, and Amazon Prime.
Many companies providing Internet access, especially wireless companies, are now saying that in order to manage their networks, which cost a great deal of money to upgrade, they should be able to discriminate based on the type of services you are using with your data allotment, not all data being created equal, and bill you on a sliding scale.
One recent example of this is AT&T’s decision to only allow access to Apple’s FaceTime video chat service for subscribers to its Mobile Share plan.
In an effort to maintain the free and open character of the Internet—in which bandwidth providers using publicly owned spectrum, in the case of wireless telecoms, cannot charge fees to its users for accessing certain kinds of content, in effect curating the Web through financial incentives—the Ministry of Communications in Jerusalem decided that net neutrality should be enshrined in Israeli law.
While the Knesset had previously legislated “various orders prohibiting mobile operators and mobile device dealers to block or limit access to contents, in order to guarantee mobile Internet neutrality,” the Ministry now proposes “to apply the same bans to all telecom operators, including mobile, fixed, ISPs, broadcasting, etc.”
According to the newly proposed amendment, which shows Israel’s communications authorities taking a stand much firmer than the weak and watered-down position of the FCC, the following measures would be prohibited:
“Blocking or limiting access to any Internet application or service; Blocking or limiting any built-in features of telecommunication equipments and devices (including by way of setting tariffs); Blocking or limiting the option of using any telecommunication equipment over any telecommunication or broadcasting network of any one of the licensees (as long as that equipment has the built-in capability to operate over such networks).”
However, network management issues, in which it is certain that a specific site or service will crash a vital network, will be cause for exceptions to the law, the Ministry stated.
“The ban on barring or limiting the option for subscribers to use any certain services or applications supplied via the Internet will not apply to bans or limitations arising from necessity for appropriate and fair traffic management, nor will it apply to cases where an explicit request for such measures was made, either by the Minister of Communications (including at the request of the security services) or by the subscriber,” the Ministry explained in a statement.
This is a welcome move and I, as a heavy Internet user, hope that it succeeds, as it can ensure the development of Israel’s high-tech sector for years to come. Clearly the FCC has much to learn from Jerusalem.