No, We’re Not Breaking The Internet

The Internet is not only holding up, but is also keeping the world going both social and economically during this crisis. This should be more than enough reason to never again question Net Neutrality and the need to understand the Internet as a public service. Instead, there have been several stories circulating about the risk to the internet from our excessive use in recent days. In this post, we analyse what could also be behind the news spread by the big Telecoms corporations and that are weaken democratic access to the Network of Networks.

The shock doctrine tells us that in emergency situations like the ones we are experiencing, every self-respecting wrongdoer will try to leverage the climate of fear to do things they wouldn’t normally get away with in a normal situation.
An example of this is how one particular news item has spread recently: just when we need it the most, we are told that the Internet is about to collapse, and moreover, it’s our own fault.

Why the Internet is the Internet

The reader has probably heard of a founding principle of the very structure behind the Internet called Net Neutrality, a principle that organisations all over the world, we have defended alongside. Broadly, this principle states that no preference can be given in network traffic to one over another, depending, for example, on what they pay. All bits and bytes on the net must be treated equally. Without it, the Internet would end up just like television, a space where content is decided by those who can afford it and the rest of us are passive users. We would only be able to buy packages separately: there would be packages for the poor with Whatsapp, Facebook and little else, which at first they would even offer us for free, but then you would have nothing else; the more you pay, the more you would be able to access. This would put an end to the global window that is the Internet we know today, which allows us to see and be seen.

Telecoms corporations and States (the less democratic they are, the more they oppose Net Neutrality) are the number one enemies of this principle because it limits the extent to which they can shovel their biases while monetising the net in a more capillary way. While democracy is crying out for the Internet to be treated as a public service, like water or electricity should be, the great economic and political powers that be are rowing hard in the opposite direction.
The argument and strategy of the Telecoms lobby against Net Neutrality has always been to whine and play the victim. Poor souls! Just think of all the money they’re forced to invest to offer everyone the same bandwidth.
The outburst of Covid19, which has left society in a state of shock, is an opportunity they could ill afford to waste.

A statement of terror

In a joint statement the great telecoms companies have come together to whimper about the situation (both in Spain and outside Spain). It is an interesting document, as pieces of propaganda go, one that bears analysing.

While we’re on the subject, the statement is also full of product placement, with the companies telling us that we have the best internet installations in Europe (haven’t they done a good job!) and that this is why it is able to withstand the 40% “explosion” in increased use (the figures are their own). They “call” for moderate use of the Internet because of the danger of it not holding up. Note that the biggest “explosions” in use that we see are usually caused by the consumption of live football (which now is not taking place), yet we’re not aware of any previous calls by the Telecom giants to moderate use during the Football Ligue. 
What they’re saying is, if anything happens, it’s your own fault for watching too many series. The most surreal part of the statement, issued by these specialists, is when they advise “not to send mass emails”, which are in no way capable of collapsing the Internet.

What is also curious is that, while they were sending this statement to the press and the European Commission, many Telecoms companies were also putting out offers and free “gifts” to their customers consisting of more gigabytes and greater bandwidth, as well as more channels which is what consumes most bandwidth.
While we cannot deny an increase in traffic, there is no saturation of the system because if there were, they would not be able to add new audiovisual content for clients (new content, by the way, in direct competition with Netflix and similar, which, as we will see, are the ones who are being marked out as responsible).

Media outlets, some eager for news about Covid19, others simply unaccustomed to questioning communiqués handed down from “above”, have published it uncritically. No questions asked, no verification, fuelling the panic: “Most seen on social networks: Coronavirus ‘collapses’ the Internet”; “The Internet might collapse”, and so on and so forth.
And voilà.
The first step in their propaganda has worked. 

The second step is to take the problem to the political institutions using their direct communication channels: the European commissioner responsible, Thierry Breton, was president of France Telecom until 2005.  A few days later the EU issued a statement as a result of which Netflix and Youtube announced that they would be lowering the quality of their videos. This is a measure we believe to be sensible under the circumstances.
But we should be careful: as we have already said, we are not denying am increase in traffic; we are denying the impending collapse of the Internet. 

For the European Commission to issue a statement to warn they are prepared to apply the European legislation on Net Neutrality, which provides that in emergency situations the flow to essential services will be prioritised, is not just normal, but should be spontaneous and natural. This is why Telecom companies are getting ahead of the game.

The subsequent EU communiqué has a disturbing bias: it transfers the authority to act to the Telecom companies. From the point of view of network neutrality —as expressed in the European regulations themselves— in cases such as this where it may be prudent or even necessary to lower the quality of the non-essential service such as Netflix or YouTube, the Telecom companies should be on the sidelines and not actively deciding strategy. Management of the traffic that passes through their networks, in cases of suspension of the Neutrality of the Internet – ike the suspension of certain fundamental rights such as those we are experiencing due to the State of Emergency -, is not the prerogative of these private companies, but of governments and parliaments. In order to impose restrictions on non-essential content providers such as YouTube and Netflix, the European Commission (or the Ministry, at the State level) must go directly to the source, to those providers. Let those who originate the traffic be the same ones who control that traffic from its origin. If the Telecom companies themselves act as Internet traffic police, they are both judge and jury. Their aim is to open the door to future control by operators of the traffic on their networks, giving them permission to discriminate and determine who uses them and for what products. This would be the end of Net Neutrality, of the Internet as we know it.


1 – Do you remember the case of the electrical companies complaining that the blackouts were happening because they didn’t have any money and in the end it was discovered they had actually been eluding taxes beyond our means?
When this crisis subsides, or perhaps even before, these telecom companies will take advantage of it to launch yet another attack on Net Neutrality by saying that we need to put an end to it in order to withstand future emergencies. We cannot afford to fall for it. It’s pure propaganda.
What we are seeing right now is the deployment of teleworking and digital management, something that should already be normal or, in any case, should be normalised in the digital age in which we live. It should not be labelled a “crash” of the Internet. We need this vital service just like all homes and businesses must have enough electricity to operate. And then, of course, they can add all the live football, channels and offers the Telecom companies want to give us. If their infrastructure, which we have all paid for together, is insufficient and they don’t want to spend money to adapt it, they are free to get into a different business.

2 – As we have seen, even if it were true that the network was collapsing, the very same European regulations for which we fought tooth and nail in 2016 , already has provisions for cases of emergency in which the flow will be prioritised for basic services. This crisis is further proof of what we have been advocating for in trying to protect net neutrality: The Internet should be a public, regulated service and not a market product. 

3 – The data provided in these claims is provided by the Telecom companies themselves. Why is data on the state of the Internet not publicly audited in an independent manner in a way that is more transparent and more understandable for the public? The Covid19 crisis is clear proof that Internet use must be improved in all spheres, public and private. In this as in all areas, we need to know the data not only for transparency and to know we are not being taken for a ride, but so that anyone can work with them because citizen science is the future.

So, let’s not dance to the sound of the drums of these producers of systemic hoaxes [3].

Let’s continue to defend net neutrality and a free, more democratic Internet.

[1] What is Net Neutrality?

[2] Net neutrality wins in Europe

[3] For more information on mass producers of systemic hoaxes, please refer to our book: “#FAKE YOU – Fake News y Desinformación” Governments, political parties, mass media, corporations, big money: monopolies of information manipulation and cuts to freedom of expression

[4] With a little effort, you can decipher the data here.