Digicel has been rolling out a new network-level ad blocker across the Caribbean over the past couple of months to stop online advertisements from going over its network. The company launched the service in Cayman in December to little fanfare, but it has not been without its critics in other markets.
Late last year the Eastern Caribbean Telecommunications Authority, the telecom regulator for five states in the region, told Digicel that the ad blocker violates net neutrality rules and would be illegal.
Net neutrality is the concept that all data is equal and Internet service providers cannot give priority to certain types of data over others. For example, with neutrality, a company such as Netflix could not pay for special access to a “fast lane” over the network, nor could other sites and services be singled out and blocked or slowed down.
The regulator wrote in early November, “The implementation of this technology by Digicel will hinder the growth, usage and deployment of broadband.” The law for the authority governing Dominica, Grenada, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines is clear on the subject of net neutrality, but that clarity does not extend to all Caribbean states.
The ad blocker software has already been implemented in Jamaica, Cayman and other countries.
Responding by email to questions about net neutrality, Antonia Graham, head of public relations for the Digicel Group, said, “All data is not equal, i.e a celebrity gossip tweet is not the same as the online broadcast of a distance learning seminar.”
She continued, “Available capacity on any broadband network is a limited and costly resource. Prioritisation allows operators to optimise the use of their networks, reduce costs and tailor pricing according to customers’ demand for capacity – benefiting the customer and improving the customer experience.”
In an earlier interview, Ms. Graham said the ad blocking software will stop online advertising from using up customers’ data allowances. Big companies like Google and Facebook can pay Digicel through revenue sharing agreements if they want their advertising to get through the network.
In a statement, the Eastern Caribbean regulator gave clear guidelines: “Service providers should treat all data on the Internet the same, not intercepting, interrupting, blocking, degrading, discriminating or charging differentially, by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, mode of communication or source or destination of communication.”
Cayman has no neutrality laws
The Cayman Islands have no specific laws on net neutrality. According to Russell Richardson, general counsel for the Information and Communications Technology Authority, Cayman’s telecom regulator laid out its position in favor of net neutrality in a 2010 ruling on “deep packet inspection” – techniques that service providers can use to monitor and control subscribers’ Internet usage.
The ICTA ruling states, “In order to promote online innovation, it is crucial that the Internet remain ‘neutral.’”
The ruling notes, “The Authority does not support the creation of a ‘private Internet’ granting exclusive or preferential access (i.e. higher bandwidth levels) to certain providers or applications selected by the ISP.”
The ruling recommends a number of changes to the ICTA law, including rules on net neutrality. However, Mr. Richardson wrote in a recent email, “Those recommended changes have as yet to be incorporated into legislation.”
Net neutrality is a major topic for debate by lawmakers and in courts around the world, from the United States to the European Union to India, and dozens of smaller jurisdictions in between.
Last year the U.S. Federal Communications Commission approved new rules to consider broadband Internet a telecommunications service and giving the telecom regulator authority over Internet service providers. With the new designation, the FCC issued a strong set of net neutrality rules.
In the words of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a U.S. group dedicated to digital rights, “The FCC has banned ISPs from blocking or throttling their customers’ traffic based on content, applications or services—which means users, hackers, tinkerers, artists, and knowledge seekers can continue to innovate and experiment on the Internet, using any app or service they please, without having to get their ISP’s permission first.”
The federal net neutrality rules were quickly challenged in U.S. courts. A panel of three judges heard the case in early December, with the telecom industry arguing that the FCC overreached and the new rules will stop companies from investing in costly broadband infrastructure.
The court will likely come out with a ruling in the next few months.
The European Union passed its own rules late last year, but the legislation is very different from that in the courts in the U.S.
The E.U. neutrality rules, covering all 28 member states, still allow “fast lanes” to give preferential treatment for some Internet traffic. The rules do prohibit mobile carriers from charging most users roaming fees, and bans many forms of online traffic discrimination. Critics in the EU say the rules are too weak to protect net neutrality.