Net neutrality and the unions

One of Canada’s largest unions, the 340,000 member National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE), has joined the battle to defend net neutrality. The fact that most trade unionists won’t even understand what that means underlines how significant NUPGE’s decision actually is.

Until now, all Internet traffic has been treated equally by Internet Service Providers (ISPs). That means that whether you’re visiting the website of your union or your employer, your government or local community organization, your request to view a web page (or download a video) are treated the same. And the same goes for email — emails sent by the largest global corporations are treated the same as emails sent by the smallest dissident groups.
But lately, some ISPs have begun complaining that there’s a growing cost to treating the massively-expanding traffic on the net equally. They’re arguing that companies should be able to pay to give their content priority.
Net neutrality is the “principle that all Internet traffic be treated equally — regardless of subject, origin, destination or application type,” according to the Canadian union. NUPGE is joining a broad coalition in Canada and globally which is battling to preserve net neutrality, and to get governments to pass legislation to guarantee it. Unfortunately, that coalition includes few trade unions, even if unions have much to gain from keeping the net neutral.
(In some cases, unions have taken a stand against net neutrality — most notably the Communication Workers of America, which accepts the arguments made by employers.)
Meanwhile, Barack Obama says that federal rules ensuring net neutrality would be high on the agenda during his first year in the Oval Office.
At a recent conference in London, American ISPs made their case, with Jim Ciccione of AT&T calling for companies to be able to exercise “network management” (which is code for no net neutrality). It turns out Mr Ciccione was preaching to the converted.
Virgin Media CEO Neil Berkett recently attacked the principle of net neutrality branding it as “bollocks”. His company has over 3.6 million customers, making it the UK’s second largest ISP. He said that Virgin is already in talks with unnamed content providers about paying to have their content delivered faster than others. He specifically warned that public service broadcasters like the BBC (not to mention unions) who choose not to pay for faster access to Virgin’s subscriber base would end up in “bus lanes”, effectively having their content delivered to consumers at a lower speed.
And Virgin is not alone. Simon Gunter, head of strategy at Tiscali, another major ISP, said that “it could be time for a new pricing model.” Neil Laycock, the chief executive of Plusnet, another UK ISP, says bluntly that “net neutrality is a pipe-dream”.
Government bodies in the UK, including Ofcom and DTI, have not committed to defending the principle of net neutrality. Speaking in 2007, Ofcom’s director of policy development said that “the European regulatory framework allows us to deal with any issues that may arise,” dismissing the need for any efforts to be made in the UK. In light of what ISPs are now saying — and doing — this strikes me as being overly complacent.
Perhaps it’s time for British unions and the TUC to follow in the footsteps of Canadian trade unionists and campaign in defence of net neutrality — before it’s too late.

3 Comments on "Net neutrality and the unions"

  1. I agree, it is an important issue that Unions should be aware of, I am going to raise it with my own Union, the National Union of Journalists.

  2. Most Canadian unions with a presence or interest in communications/journalism have followed NUPGE’s example and have taken similar positions.

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