In South Korea, people usually think about consumer issues, such as lowering mobile rates, or relationship between media companies, when it comes to telecommunication policies. The view on net neutrality is likewise. Net neutrality received public attention, as the three domestic mobile carriers (SKT, KT, and LGU+) blocked access for Kakao Talk’s mobile voice over Internet protocol (mVoIP) service, Voice Talk, in June 2012. Below a certain rate plan, the quality of the service was degraded.
Previously, the carriers have also blocked other mVoIP serivices, such as DAUM’s ‘Mypeople’ and Naver’s ‘Line.’ On this account, Jinbo Network and the Citizens’ Coalition for Economic Justice (CCEJ) reported KT and SKT to Korea Communications Commission (KCC), Korea Fair Trade Commission (KFTC), and National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK) in year 2011. Blocking access to mVoIP can be seen as conflict between Internet service providers (ISPs) and Internet content providers (ICPs), and it also concerns consumer’s rights and interests. For instance, customers with 35,000KRW and 45,000KRW rate plans should also be able to use mVoIP services to reduce the communication costs.
However, carriers blocking the mVoIp service have a more serious implication. If the carriers have power to block the mVoIP service arbitrarily, it is also likely that they can arbitrarily block other internet contents or services. In February 2012, KT had blocked Samsung Electronic’s Smart TV service for 5 days. They didn’t block all Smart TV traffics. They only blocked traffics for Samsung Smart TV service. KT also announced a plan to block peer-to-peer (P2P) traffics. Carriers blocking or arbitrarily slowing the transmission of particular Web traffic is a violation to net neutrality.
To put it simply, net neutrality is a principle that companies that operate a telecommunications network, like the telephone, cable, and Internet companies, should not be able to play favorites with the content that goes over the network, regardless of the data type (videos, P2P, text), provider (Samsung Smart TV, LG Smart TV, and etc.), and the type of mobile device (Smart phones, Tablet PC, Laptops) used. Companies that own telecommunications network should only act as a ‘pipeline.’ Imagine if the power companies could dictate which television or computer you plugged in to the wall. The power grid delivers same level of service to every appliance, and as a result the market for appliances and consumer electronics is competitive. The same should be true for the Internet. This is called the “end-to-end principle.”
South Korea’s Wi-Fi environment can be divided into two phases: before and after iPhone is introduced to the market. Before iPhone, consumers had to go through a specific platform offered by the carrier to use internet. The applications were limited to what was offered by their carriers, and thus ICPs had to rely on ISPs to have a good position in the market. There weren’t any mobile devices that offered Wi-Fi service. The Wi-Fi service cost a lot of money and people bought mobile devices directly from the carriers.
But the system dramatically changed after iPhone was introduced to the market. People could use wireless network without the approval from the carriers. ICPs didn’t have to get approval from the ISPs to create applications, and sell them freely in the app-stores. Innovation would have been impossible, if someone controlled what applications are allowed or not allowed in the internet.
Internet is called the network of network. But this network consists of countless numbers of private networks. For instance, anyone could build a network and connect to internet to become part of the whole network. In the past, backbone network was run by a government-owned company, but it is now converted to private companies. In South Korea wired and wireless network is oligopolized by the three domestic carriers, KT, SKT, and LGU+.
Despite the privatization, the internet is kept open because of ‘transmission control protocol/Internet protocol’ (TCP/IP). As TCP/IP prohibits monopoly of the network, anyone can connect to the internet, as long as TCP/IP is followed. To keep the openness of the internet on the level of contents, network neutrality is important. If a telecommunication company could arbitrarily control the data traffic, a kind of “private censorship” is being implemented.
So why are the carriers trying to control the network? The carriers are private companies. Obviously, they want to maximize their profits. As the number of subscribers reached its limit, the telecommunication companies also started to enter the content market. mVoIP service became their primary target, since it is considered the greatest threat to traditional telecom revenue. If net neutrality is not kept, the telecom companies could speed up the data traffic of their affiliates and slow down the competitors. Then users would naturally prefer the contents offered by the affiliates.
Therefore, net neutrality is an important principle for fair competition, and consumer’s rights and interests, which allows good service in reasonable price. It is also a matter of internet user’s freedom of expression. Profit or non-profit, users connected to internet should be able to transfer the services and contents they developed to other users. If the telecom companies could arbitrarily control the data traffic, they could manipulate information for political purposes with the help of the government or through government pressure.
Net Neutrality also concerns user’s privacy. Internet traffic management requires the use of can use deep packet inspection (DPI) technology – technology that can “read” packets of information flowing through the Internet. In this case, packets are being read to identify specific Internet activities – like the use of P2P file-sharing applications or the use of mVoIP service. That same technology can be used to read a whole lot more about what you do on the Internet: what you’re watching, downloading or reading, who you’re talking to, what you’re saying, as well as where you are and who you are.
At root, the network neutrality debate is about who will control innovation and competition on the Internet. Will innovation be controlled by a few network operators, or will the Internet remain open, with minimal barriers to entry for entrepreneurs and garage inventors, alike? Net neutrality should be enacted to ensure access to the network for both consumers and content providers.
However, even without the enactment of net neutrality, the current Telecommunications Business Act (TBA) regulates unfair competition of telecommunication companies, or infringement of consumer’s rights.
Article 3 of the TBA states that “a telecommunications carrier shall not refuse to provide any telecommunications service, without any justifiable reason.”
In regard to licensing common carriers, Article 5 allows to “attach the conditions necessary for the promotion of fair competition, protection of users, improvement of service quality, and efficient use of information and communications resources.”
Under the TBA, the articles imply that the domestic legislative system has partially adopted the principle of net neutrality.