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Policy and regulatory issues in the mobile internet

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Por Russell Southwood (APC)
, May 2011

This paper is part of a series of policy briefs on the mobile internet from a human rights perspective

The mobile internet as new media

The mobile phone is rapidly becoming media, both as a primary source for content and as a platform for delivery of content. With rapid changes in what a mobile phone can actually do, millions of people are using it to access the internet and to upload and distribute content. In many developing countries, a mobile phone is the technology device most likely to be owned by people after a radio but, unlike the latter, most people will carry the mobile phone with them almost everywhere.

However, a new mobile digital divide can be created between those who have access to phones providing a wider range of services (smartphones and feature-rich phones) and those who do not (basic phones). This will be one of an increasingly complex set of divides based on device ownership and device access.

Clash of values and business models

The rules and processes that have governed the internet so far are very different from those applied by the mobile operators who control access to the internet on their networks. Indeed, the very nature of the networks over which the internet and mobile internet are delivered differs. From its origins, the internet was designed to be open and largely free at the point of delivery, while traditional telephony (out of which mobile telephony emerged) is a highly centralising technology.

Mobile operators have sought to work through proprietary systems that allowed them to control who had access to their networks and over how they were charged for access. Therefore early content efforts by mobile operators were “walled-gardens” which operators could charge for and users had no easy access to the wider internet. With the arrival of “apps”, a new form of hybrid internet has appeared and mobile operators fear a loss of control over “value-added services” (like charging for content) and that they will end up with becoming the “dumb pipe” (moving data around at low, commoditised prices). This is only one symptom of a broader struggle between the traditional values and business assumptions of the mobile operators and the values and assumptions of those who operate the internet.

It is this clash of values and business models that means that policy-makers and regulators have to ensure in a defensive sense that users do not lose existing gains that have been made since the internet launched.

Challenges of the mobile internet

Access to mobile as media can be affected in a number of different ways including governments’ power to shut down SMS and the internet, commercial companies exercising control over access to content, the terms under which users get access to services, users’ privacy and issues governing what types of content can be published.
The primary goal of regulation and policy should be to fulfil human rights. But these rights are affected by both models of commercial practice and individual violations of these rights. Without a transparent set of rules, governments and mobile companies can all take action in a less than transparent way and, in some cases, there are no processes through which such actions can be challenged.

As different media have appeared the regulations and legislation applied to them have been different. For example, in most countries, the control of what can be broadcasted is considerably tighter than what can be published. The problem for regulators and governments is that the neat boundaries between different media have begun to disappear with the impact of convergence.

The temptation might be to try and control mobile media more tightly than the internet. Because the internet was never “licensed” by government, it sat within existing laws but also outside of them by the nature of its international governance and operation. As a consequence of its distributed nature, the most liberal of country legislation (wherever that can be found) allows it to operate more freely.

Whatever its faults, the internet represents a “gold standard” for freedom of expression and that lawmakers and regulators should seek to emulate its success when looking at mobile media. They need to be prepared to step in and protect citizens from both attempts to restrict the right to freedom of expression and anti-competitive behaviour that might lead to restrict access to mobile content.

Photo by josue salazar. Used with permission under Creative Commons licence 2.0

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