Is Taiwan’s Net Neutrality under threat?

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(Credit: Flickr user Backbone campaign)

After the FCC rolled back net neutrality in the USA, Taiwan Mobile are angling for the same thing to happen here. But surely online freedom is too precious for Taiwan to sacrifice it in the name of corporate profits?

The first year of Donald Trump’s Presidency of the United States has gone by in a bit of a blur. Outsiders have stood back and watched as the leader of the free world lurched from one PR crisis to another and, until the Republican tax legislation passed at the end of the year failed to pass any major legislation.

But while Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress and Senate have flailed, some of his appointments into senior roles have proceeded apace with their controversial agendas. And none have raised the ire of the American people more than Ajit Pai, who is the new Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

FCC’s attack on internet freedom in the US

Under his leadership, the FCC had already managed to roll back online privacy legislation, which prevented American ISPs from selling user data to third parties without first gaining their consent.

And then last month, and in the face of opposition from IT experts and the general public alike, Pai and the FCC voted to repeal Net Neutrality Laws. This was a huge victory for America’s Internet Service Providers (ISPs), which now stand to make vast profits from the new powers this hands them to speed up some websites and slow down others.

Given this, it is perhaps inevitable that ISPs from other countries are keen to see net neutrality laws taken down elsewhere too. And sadly, one of the first to put their head above the parapet is Taiwan Mobile.

Speaking last week at a forum event, the President of Taiwan Mobile, James Cheng (鄭俊卿), made the call for net neutrality laws in Taiwan to be scrapped. His justification was that it would give his company and others in the same sector more “operational flexibility”.

Taiwan Mobile’s lust for even greater profits

Digging down into the detail of his speech, it is clear that the real motivation for Taiwan Mobile’s request is a financial one. But in trying to make his case to boost his company coffers, Cheng did at least lean on some interesting statistics about internet usage in Taiwan.

In his presentation, Cheng explained that 70 percent of Taiwanese telecom subscribers are 4G users and they use an average of 13.2GB of data a month. This is, he claims, nearly four times as much as 3G users do, and is at least in part by more users paying a fixed fee for unlimited internet access.

However, Cheng then went on to bemoan the fact that despite this increase in internet data usage, his company’s revenues have actually declined over the past decade from NT$217 billion in 2008 to NT$209 billion in 2017.

“Telecoms have to expand their bandwidth and maintain and operate the Internet, but they do not see a substantial increase in revenue,” Cheng claimed. Instead, he argues that it is foreign-based websites that are making profits from advertising on their sites.

Cheng, of course, wants this to change. And he sees an opportunity to do that if Taiwan can follow America’s lead on Net Neutrality. As he put it rather bluntly in his speech, “[Scrapping Net Neutrality] in Taiwan would allow local telecoms to earn their fair share of the profit.”

He is right that ending net neutrality laws will undoubtedly boost the profits of ISPs. It is no coincidence that Ajit Pai, who repealed the laws in the USA, is a former lawyer at American ISP Verizon. And of course, no-one can blame Chen for trying to boost his company’s profits. That is his job after all.

Why Net Neutrality Matters

But on everything other than the profits of ISPs like Taiwan Mobile and Verizon, the rolling back of Net Neutrality laws will be hugely damaging. Consumers will seriously suffer because ISPs will begin to throttle and even block sites that do not pay them to keep speeds fast. They are also likely to promote their own websites and services at the expense of competitors.

Start-ups and SMEs will also suffer because they will not be able to pay the same prices as more established companies in their sector. As things stand, a start-up tech company website must run at the same speed as the websites of Foxconn or Asus. Without net neutrality, that will no longer be the case.

The ending of net neutrality essential means the end of internet equality. It means that people’s right to access a free and open internet will disappear. Taiwan is rightly proud about the only freedoms it can boast when compared to the regime of censorship and surveillance that the Communist Party of China operates just over the Taiwan Straits. Removing Net Neutrality protects would undermine that too.

The future for Net Neutrality

In the USA, experts and the public are now dependent on legal challenges to the FCC’s decision delaying the change for long enough for that Ajit Pai can be removed and the decision reversed.

Meanwhile, in Taiwan, one of the attendees at the Forum where James Cheng made his pitch for scrapping net neutrality rules was Nicole Chan (詹婷怡), the Chairwoman of Taiwan’s National Communications Commission (NCC), which is responsible for such regulations.

It is not known how she reacted to the suggestion. But it seems likely that she expressed a little surprise. This is because Taiwan doesn’t actually have any specific net neutrality laws to be repealed. But there are regulations and safeguards in place, which no doubt Taiwan Mobile would like to see the back of.

In Taiwan, the NCC has the power to step in if ISPs try to charge certain websites higher fees or change access speeds to them. And crucially, the public can also complain to the NCC if they experience any throttling or believe some sites are behaving unusually.

So, while James Cheng is calling for these powers to be stripped away, it seems a timely moment to raise awareness of the regulations that protect Net Neutrality here that are already in place. Free internet access is very important to most Taiwanese people, with usage here amongst the highest in the world.

That alone should be enough to ensure that the profits of Taiwan Mobile are not put ahead of net neutrality. But the situation in America has shown us that this is not always enough. And in Taiwan, perhaps we too now need to be prepared to fight for our right to an open and equal internet.