You know all that talk about net neutrality in the US? How for instance Verizon and Google want net neutrality to apply only to something they call the ‘wired’ internet, which is apparently somehow different from the ‘mobile’ internet? Well, while you Americans are only talking about it, us Dutch are once again way ahead of the curve: the largest of the three main carriers has announced its intention to start charging extra for services like VoIP, instant messaging, Facebook, and so on, with the other two carriers contemplating similar moves. The dark future of the web, right here in my glorified swamp.
The Dutch mobile telecommunications market is dominated by three large players – KPN, Vodafone, and T-Mobile. KPN – full name Koninklijke KPN N.V. – is the continuation of the publicly owned landline operator, which was privatised back in the ’80s. Currently, they still handle the bulk of landline connections for historical reasons, while also being the largest mobile carrier in the country.
Due to declining revenue from regular voice and text services, the company announced this week its intention to fragment the web and start spying on its customers. Starting this summer, customers will have to pay additional fees to use services like Skype and WhatsApp; if you don’t pay the additional fees, you won’t be able to access them.
As far as other services are concerned – like Facebook and video sites such as YouTube – KPN will be “talking to its customers”; translated from business-speak this means that they’re starting off with charging for slightly less common services first to ease the public into this new kind of policy, after which they’ll throw down the gauntlet on common things like YouTube and Facebook.
KPN claims existing customers with running contracts will not be affected, and that the policy is only valid for new contracts. This isn’t entirely true, though; KPN is using a loophole. Technically, the terms and conditions already state services like VoIP and text-over-IP are not allowed; they just never really cared about it, no measures were put in place to actually prevent people from using these services. Starting this summer, even for existing customers, technological measures will be put in place to stop these services from working.
These technological measures, of course, are built around deep packet inspection, which basically checks all the data you send through the tubes for things the carriers aren’t happy with and want to charge you extra for. It’s the equivalent of the postal service opening and reading all your mail so they can charge you extra for letters with certain types of content. Coincidentally, the Dutch national postal service and KPN used to be one and the same, until they were split during the privatisation process.
This means KPN will be violating several privacy norms in the process, but apparently, that’s no longer a big deal these days. The OPTA, the Dutch telecommunications regulator, is okay with all this, as they claim it will bring more choice to the marketplace. This is nonsense of course; while KPN hasn’t announced any pricing details yet, you can bet Nicki Clyne’s sweet smile that it’ll consist of surcharges on top of what people are already paying. KPN isn’t doing this to provide choice – they’re doing this to make more money.
The other two major mobile carriers, T-Mobile and Vodafone, are currently mulling over similar plans, but have not yet made any firm announcements. However, considering the small size of the country, and the fact there’s only three players in this market, the probability of KPN making this move on its own without knowing the others will follow suit seems highly unlikely. In other words, what used to be a parody, will become a reality in what was once a pretty decent internet-happy country.
Since I have little to no hopes of my government doing anything about this (at least not as long as the CDA and VVD are in power), the only ones who can possibly do anything about this are the services themselves. You see, KPN and the other carriers will be charging for services they do not own; I can’t possibly think Facebook, YouTube, Skype, and so on, will be happy about this. They could easily and quite simply block access to their services for all KPN customers, even those that are paying the additional charges, with a nice notice as to why – the public outrage towards the carriers could be pretty huge.
I sincerely hope they have the balls to do so, but a cynical voice in the back of my head whispers – what if the services are actually in on this? What if they’ll actually be getting a cut? What if they’ve been negotiating deals like this specifically to make a little extra income? I mean, Google owns YouTube, and Google is in favour of a fragmented mobile web with no respect for privacy.
If that’s the case – then we’re screwed. It’d be the world’s most elaborate bait-and-switch: hook the entire population to the web as a free and open network – and then charge the crap out of everyone once the world’s become dependent on it.