State-owned Telia has initiated a close collaboration with the global media giant Facebook. Under the terms of the partnership, Facebook’s services will be distributed free to Telia customers, in contrast to the content from other media companies. Even if the user has run out of data, and the rest of the Internet is inaccessible, they will still be able to read posts on Facebook – but not from other Swedish media companies.
This is a direct attack on net neutrality, and it is hardly a coincidence that it’s happening two weeks after the new EU net neutrality rules go into effect with the intent of securing an open Internet with equal treatment for everyone.
Net neutrality means that all traffic on the Internet is treated equally – no one should be able to buy their way to VIP treatment. No traffic should be prioritised, blocked or throttled. No one may be discriminated – in a positive or negative sense. And yet this is exactly what is happening.
This year Sweden celebrates 250 years of press freedom. We have a history we can be proud of. The question is if we will be as proud in the future. Sweden has not taken the lead in securing freedom of the press in the new media landscape. Its policies have not kept up as media have transitioned to an online presence. We see it in one field after another: in the work of supporting IT security efforts at media companies, in the punitive VAT on digital newspapers, in the government’s passivity in the face of the global media giants’ tax evasion, in issues regarding the roll-out of broadband in all parts of Sweden, and in this case, in securing regulations that ensure everyone’s equality on the Internet.
Telia’s agreement with Facebook is yet another blow to Swedish media companies. It is an attempt to test and push the limits of how far telecom companies can go to control web content. Telia’s actions fall into a legal grey area. A conscious agitation against the idea of an open Internet. If this type of business model is permitted, Sweden’s publicists will be forced to make separate deals with the telecom operators to get the access they need to the Internet or to enter similar deals with digital giants like Facebook.
What Telia and Facebook are creating here is a self-perpetuating closed system – a dominant player in the media industry (Facebook) makes a deal with a dominant player in the telecom industry (Telia), giving Facebook an advantage over all other media players that are dependent on the internet, while giving Telia an advantage over other telecom companies. The rest of the industry is then forced to follow the lead of the two giants who are now setting the rules.
Imagine what an advantage BMW would have if it made a deal with the Swedish Transport Administration that only BMWs were allowed to drive in the bus lane, or that BMWs didn’t have to pay congestion fees or vehicle tax!
But can’t customers choose if they want free Facebook or not? No, just as we can’t allow certain people to pay an additional fee to the Transport Agency in order to drive in the bus lane.
With the Facebook model, telecom companies will be encouraged to force more and more customers into their selected services. In the long run, there will be less data in the plans that the customers buy and the telecom companies will have an incentive to raise the price for access to the rest of the Internet. The result, if Telia continues to expand its “offer”, will be Internet services based on the cable TV business model – in which a handful of giant worldwide corporate groups are the only players whose services reach the public.
If the open Internet falls, it affects us all. We’ll suffer from a loss of diversity in media, and we’ll risk losing the right to publish ourselves. Must we all conform to the policies and publication rules set up by Facebook, Google and Telia? This will create an insurmountable threshold for future start-ups that want to compete with established companies – they won’t be able to reach their potential customers.
This effect will be extra strong in sparsely populated rural areas and places where people are dependent on mobile data services. This means that freedom of the press will not be as strongly protected in those places. It will be even harder for small and medium-sized players to gain a local foothold – if they don’t want to submit to Facebook’s business logic and publication rules. In practice, this means that the priority of local news in Härjedalen, Sweden will increasingly be managed by algorithms on the West Coast of the United States.
Don’t let technological development overrun our long tradition of freedom of expression and strong media. Net neutrality is our era’s freedom of expression, and when it is threatened, society must step in. The Swedish Post and Telecom Authority, which is tasked with specifying and interpreting the European rules, has already received several hundred reports against Telia under the new regulations.
If this is not enough, we in Sweden need to develop national regulations to make it perfectly clear that the Internet is equally open for everyone. It should be unquestionable that this business model breaks the principles of equal treatment online.
The fact that the state-owned Telia is leading the way in this race to the bottom is enormously sad. If anyone should guarantee openness, it’s the Swedish government. Regardless of regulations, we urge the Government and the Parliament to utilise their role as majority owners in Telia to ensure that the company works as a role model for net neutrality and the right to freedom of expression on the Internet.
Many users will surely jump at the offer. It may seem like a bargain in the beginning. But if the price is that our public discourse is regulated from Menlo Park, California, then that price is far, far too high.
Casten Almqvist, CEO the TV4 group
Sture Bergman, CEO VK Media
Cilla Benkö, Director General Swedish Radio
Per-Anders Broberg, CEO Swedish Publishers' Association
Unn Edberg, Chair The Swedish Magazine Publishers Association (SMPA)
Stefan Eklund, Editor-in-chief Borås Tidning
Anders Enström, Editor-in-chief Barometern and Oskarshamnstidningen
Charlotta Friborg, Editor-in-chief and CEO UNT
Raoul Grünthal, Chair TU – Swedish Media Publishers' Association and CEO Schibsted Sweden
Anna Gullberg, Editor-in-chief Gefle Dagblad
Jeanette Gustafsdotter, CEO TU – Swedish Media Publishers' Association
Anders Ingvarsson, Editor-in-chief Sundsvalls Tidning
Anders Jensen, CEO MTG Sweden
Fredric Karén, Editor-in-chief SCEO
Anna Lindberg, CEO Östgöta Media
Thomas Mattsson, Editor-in-chief Expressen
Kerstin Neld, CEO The Swedish Magazine Publishers Association (SMPA)
Anders Nilsson, incoming Editor-in-chief Nerikes Allehanda
Daniel Nordström, Editor-in-chief VLT
Helena Nyman, Editor-in-chief Arbetarbladet
Sofia Olsson Olsén, Editor-in-chief and CEO Aftonbladet
Thomas Peterssohn, CEO MittMedia
Pia Rehnquist, Publisher Helsingborgs Dagblad and Sydsvenskan
Hanna Stjärne, Director General SVT
Christel Tholse Willers, Director General UR
Sofia Wadensjö Karén, Chair Swedish Publishers' Association and CEO and Editor-in-chief Vi
Kerstin Årmann, Editor-in-chief Blekinge Läns Tidning
(Photo by Rick Barry/Broken Shade Photo, republished under Creative Commons license, BY 2.0)