Web inventor warns against zero-rating net neutrality threat

Zero-rating – where carriers charge nothing or very little for the data used by specific apps and web services – is a threat to net neutrality, web inventor Tim Berners-Lee has warned.

The practice is becoming very popular, with mobile operators in particular making special offers that exempt services such as [company]Facebook[/company] and [company]Spotify[/company] from customers’ normal data caps. This steers users to those specific services and harms their rivals, whose traffic becomes much more expensive to the user.

Berners-Lee slammed zero-rating on Tuesday in a guest post on the blog of EU digital single market commissioner Andrus Ansip, who is a staunch supporter of net neutrality and is currently trying to get EU member states to agree to the strong net neutrality rules voted through by the European Parliament last year.

However, those rules don’t call out zero-rating, also known as positive price discrimination, as a net neutrality violation. The European Commission has also so far held back from defining it as such.

Here’s what the web pioneer wrote in his pro-net-neutrality piece:

Of course, [net neutrality] is not just about blocking and throttling. It is also about stopping ‘positive discrimination’, such as when one internet operator favours one particular service over another. If we don’t explicitly outlaw this, we hand immense power to telcos and online service operators. In effect, they can become gatekeepers — able to handpick winners and the losers in the market and to favour their own sites, services and platforms over those of others. This would crowd out competition and snuff out innovative new services before they even see the light of day.

I asked Ansip’s office whether he agreed with Berners-Lee’s views, and was told that, although the guest posts don’t reflect official Commission positions, Ansip considers the post to be “an important contribution to the debate on net neutrality.”

As things stand, the Latvian presidency of the Council of the European Union – the body that represents the government of member states – is busy working out its position on the EU’s almost-concluded Telecoms Single Market Regulation, which includes the new net neutrality laws.

Under the Council’s previous Italian presidency, leaks suggested that the member states were going to dilute the net neutrality provisions by making them aspirational rather than set in stone. However, the Commission and Parliament both pushed back hard, and negotiations are ongoing.

The Council indicated in January that, although some member states were keen on banning zero-rating, opposition from other member states meant there wasn’t enough support to insert an explicit clause about this into the new regulation.

In the meantime, countries such as the Netherlands, Slovenia and Norway have pushed ahead with national bans on zero-rating. Outside Europe, Chile and Canada have done the same.

If anyone wants to hassle the Latvian presidency of the Council about the need for strong net neutrality rules, Berners-Lee supplied a handy pre-written tweet. It might also be worth reminding them that the U.S. looks set to embrace strong net neutrality – ironically, a year ago the old Commission was taunting the U.S. for dithering on net neutrality when Europe was preparing to take a firm stance.

Open data progress is slow, warns Web Foundation

Accessible open data about government spending and services remains a pipe dream across most of the world, an 86-country survey by the World Wide Web Foundation has found.

The second edition of the Open Data Barometer, which came out on Tuesday, showed that fewer than 8 percent of surveyed countries publish datasets on things like government budgets, spending and contracts, and on the ownership of companies, in bulk machine-readable formats and under open re-use licenses.

This is particularly disappointing as both the G7 and G20 groups of countries have said they will try to create more governmental transparency by providing open data that anyone can crunch and build new businesses upon. Globally, the report states that “the trend is towards steady, but not outstanding, growth in open data readiness and implementation.”

According to web inventor and Foundation founder Tim Berners-Lee:

The G7 and G20 blazed a trail when they recognised open data as a crucial tool to strengthen transparency and fight corruption. Now they need to keep their promises to make critical areas like government spending and contracts open by default. The unfair practice of charging citizens to access public information collected with their tax resources must cease.

The G7 (which was the G8 before Russia left last year) signed a charter in 2013 in which the advanced economies said they would be open “by default”, and would publish key datasets in that year.

Now, out of those nations, only the U.K. has an open company register and only the U.K. and Canada publish land ownership data in open formats and under open licenses. Only the U.K. and the U.S. publish detailed open data on government spending, and only the U.S., Canada and France publish open data on national environment statistics. Open mapping data is only published in the U.K., the U.S. and Germany.

As you can no doubt tell, the U.K. is the global leader in this field, followed by the U.S., then Sweden, then France and New Zealand in tied fourth place – France is improving rapidly, having been in 10th place in 2013. G7 members Japan and Italy languish in 19th and 22nd place respectively, publishing almost no key datasets as open data except for Japan’s crime statistics. (Incidentally, the University of Chicago’s Jens Ludwig will be giving an interesting talk about tackling crime with data at our upcoming Structure Data conference in March.)

Of those in the “emerging and advancing” cluster of countries, Spain and Chile (up 10 places on 2013) are on top of the pile with rankings of 13th and 15th place respectively. The worst performer out of all the surveyed countries was Burma.

Web report: Online surveillance and censorship are getting worse

Mass online surveillance and censorship of what people see on the web appear to be getting worse, according to the latest Web Index report from Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web Foundation. These trends, along with the paucity of net neutrality rules around the world, have led the web inventor to call for the internet to be made a basic human right.

“That means guaranteeing affordable access for all, ensuring internet packets are delivered without commercial or political discrimination, and protecting the privacy and freedom of web users regardless of where they live,” Berners-Lee said in a statement. “In an increasingly unequal world, the web can be a great leveller — but only if we hardwire the rights to privacy, freedom of expression, affordable access and net neutrality into the rules of the game.”

The Web Index aims to quantify the web’s impact on countries’ social, economic and political progress. Produced annually since 2012, the index provides rankings that, over time, make it easier to spot trends. This year, the trends aren’t looking so hot. In 2013, the foundation’s researchers found that 63 percent of the 86 countries listed in the index had privacy safeguards that were weak to non-existent. A year on, that figure has risen to 83 percent.

According to the report, the rise is partly because revelations about mass surveillance programs and their associated legal regimes have taught us more than we knew before about what’s actually going on. “However, there is also evidence that due process safeguards for citizens are being progressively dismantled,” the report stated, “even as the capability and appetite of governments to spy on us is expanding.”

It continued:

The companies that report on government demands for user data have documented worldwide increases in such orders — between January–June 2013 and January–June 2014, [company]Twitter[/company] reported a 78% increase; [company]Google[/company], a 14% increase; and [company]Facebook[/company], a 30% increase. [company]Microsoft[/company] reported 30% growth in the number of accounts affected by secret US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) requests between 2011 and 2013, while Yahoo said it was “troubled” by a 67% increase in accounts subject to FISA orders between the first and last half of 2013.

The report noted that many countries don’t allow disclosure of statistics about interception warrants and metadata access, including the U.K., Germany, India, South Africa, Turkey, the Netherlands and Ireland. It also highlighted several new laws that actually expand state surveillance and weaken privacy safeguards, including DRIPA in the U.K., France’s real-time web spying law, and laws in Australia and South Africa.

Meanwhile, new censorship drives in countries such as Turkey have seen the percentage of the 86 countries found to be “blocking politically or socially sensitive web content to a moderate or extreme degree” had gone up from 30 to 38, year-on-year.

Handily, the foundation has provided an interactive map demonstrating the severity of online surveillance and censorship around the world:

[protected-iframe id=”287d79ed95d521fa524525f04870fd3a-14960843-16988840″ info=”http://thewebindex.org/wp-content/themes/wixWordpress_Theme-develop/visualisations/censorship-full.html” width=”800″ height=”600″]

The 2014 Web Index provided other findings as well:

  • In three out of five countries surveyed, the web and social media had a significant effect on citizen action.
  • Only a quarter or so of the countries have clear net neutrality rules or rules against political discrimination in internet traffic management.
  • In around three-quarters of the countries, there is a failure to tackle online gender-based violence.
  • 4.3 billion people – almost 60 percent of the world’s population – cannot get online at all, and over 1.8 billion “face severe violations of their rights to privacy and freedom of expression when they go online.”

Meanwhile, earlier this week Berners-Lee said Europe’s right to be de-linked “seems to be dangerous” at the moment. He said it was right that false information should be deleted, but accurate information should remain untouched because of free-speech and history-related reasons.

The DRM dilemma facing the open web

Tim Berners-Lee suggests that allowing content protection mechanisms into the HTML5 web standard may be necessary in order to help web standards fight back against the rise of proprietary platforms. But is that tradeoff worth making?