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Building an Internet Fast Lane in Russia Could Be a Great Way to Stifle Independent Media

The Net neutrality paradise of information equality may be coming to an end in Russia. Images mixed by Kevin Rothrock.

The net neutrality paradise of information equality may be coming to an end in Russia. Images mixed by Kevin Rothrock.

The Federal Anti-Monopoly Service (FAS) may soon allow Internet Service Providers to collect fees from websites willing to pay a premium for prioritized content delivery. 

The popularity of websites and services content requiring high bandwidth, like YouTube and Skype, has led to a dramatic increase in the amount of data traveling through the Internet, FAS says. The increased load on Russia's telecommunication network necessitates new investment in the national infrastructure, but ISPs complain that they're short on funds.

As is the case around the world, Russian Internet service providers are vocal opponents of net neutrality, which exists in Russia largely de facto, without being legally enshrined. Rostelecom, a leading local telcom that is majority-owned by the Russian government, has blamed Skype for gobbling up too much of its bandwidth and in turn allowing users to make calls for “free,” rather than using Rostelecom's telephone services. According to the company, customers’ use of Skype cost it 6.7 billion rubles ($166 million USD) in 2009 alone.

Although network neutrality is not explicitly protected under Russian law, Russian ISPs effectively treat all Internet traffic equally when it comes to its “size” or the amount of bandwidth it requires for transport. It should be noted that Russian ISPs do block some traffic on political grounds—a practice that goes against the principle of net neutrality, which is to treat all traffic equally, without exception.

Details about the plan to end Russian net neutrality are still few and far between. So far, FAS has merely submitted its proposal to the government, which will deliberate for nobody knows how long. In fact, FAS’ announcement itself was quite unexpected. Just a few months ago, agency head Igor Artemyev expressed his support for the principles of net neutrality, saying that ISPs should treat all content equally. 

И мы можем ещё раз подчеркнуть, что ликвидация мобильного рабства, технологическая нейтральность, сетевая нейтральность, конкуренция между стационарной электросвязью, развитие её с мобильной и так далее являются фундаментальными вопросами, о которых мы мечтали 10 лет.

We can stress once again that the end of “mobile slavery” [the introduction of portability for mobile telephone numbers] and the arrival of technological neutrality, Net neutrality, competition between landlines and mobile networks, and so on, all represent fundamental things we dreamed about for the last decade.

Now, however, FAS officials are citing the Federal Communications Commission in the United States for arguments against net neutrality. FAS’ new proposal would require ISPs to maintain a service “baseline,” but companies would be allowed to charge more money to deliver faster speeds for premium content.

Net neutrality remains an unresolved issue in the US, as well, where the FCC's position seems irresolute, despite President Obama's statement on October 9 that he opposes “creating two or three or four tiers of Internet.” When it comes to Internet regulations, Russian officials often model policy on approaches tried in the United States. By “copycatting” the US, Moscow is able to defend itself as “behaving like the Western democracies.”

Depending on what the FCC does with net neutrality, Russia's FAS might need to reexamine its justifications for policy reform. 

In Russia, where the online space for independent media is fast shrinking, the prospect of filtering Internet content poses additional dangers. Indeed, if Russian ISPs are permitted to play favorites, when it comes to delivering websites and services, ordinary Internet users might wake up one day to find that Kremlin-friendly online media load much more quickly than the scrappy free press.

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