Net Neutrality and You

I’ve threatened to write about this for years, because I know a lot of my friends tend to assume that either this is a strange technical issue that won’t affect them, or that this is a strange technical issue will affect them, but that they can never hope to understand.

Essentially, the thing is this: At the moment, sitting at your computer, it doesn’t matter if you’re looking at a YouTube video, my website, the Disney website, of the website of Joe the specialist lizard breeder from Norwich (Joe will be important later). It all downloads at the same speed. I know that in practice, it doesn’t always – there are all sorts reasons for that, but in principle it downloads at the same speed – every link in the chain between content and user passes things along at the best speed it can. You pay your ISP for your 2,4,8, 24MB or whatever speed broadband, and they deliver content to you at as close to that speed as they can.

That’s because the net is neutral. All content is delivered to the person asking for it at the fastest possible speed. It’s a principle that has been built into the internet from day one – the internet was designed at the most fundamental, basic level to be accepting of new uses, and not to prioritise a particular use over any of the others, because the designers were smart enough to know that they weren’t smart enough to invent every use for it themselves. (They thought that all it would get used for would be be porn, on-line casinos and unwanted emails about penises). The playing field between Joe the lizard specialist and Mickey Mouse is level, at least on a technical footing. Any other disparity is getting into attention economy stuff, and isn’t relevant here, except in that our burgeoning attention economy will work best and fairest when we are equal on a technological level.

Google and Verizon are putting forth a document that contains policy suggestions that seek to undermine that principle of neutrality, by, among other things, making distinctions between “wired” and “mobile” internet. This is an entirely artificial distinction, and here’s why:

The base protocol of the internet is TCP/IP – don’t worry about what it stands for, if you don’t know. What it means is irrelevant, that key fact here, that if this were a Powerpoint presentation would be sliding on with some kind of animated fireworks and a little fanfare sound, is that absolutely *everything* that is on the internet makes use of it, at some level. If something doesn’t, then it isn’t on the internet. Yes, your mobile 3G broadband uses a different technology to your WiFi connection, which is different to your ethernet cable. But once you get past those technologies of connection, then technology of communication becomes the same. From a TCP/IP point of view, the difference between your iPhone’s 3G connection and your office desktop’s ethernet is the difference between a blue network cable and red network cable. (The blue ones are faster, if you’re wondering.)

Google and Verizon are making this distinction because they want to pre-emptively limit the authority of the FCC to regulate the “mobile internet”. This is sophistry and horseshit: it’s all the same internet. Your “mobile” phone communicates with my “wired” desktop computer without either one of them having to know that the other is not also a phone/desktop/internet-enabled-dog. And in a world where people increasingly use a “wireless” broadband dongle for home internet access (a practice that is more common in low income households, in the UK at least), it’s not so much seeking to prevent regulation as to deregulate that which is already regulated, for good reason.

Verizon and Google are also making a distinction between “the public internet” and “additional services”. I can’t tell you what those are for certain, because there isn’t an iron-clad definition, but what they look like to me is a way to get the thin end of the wedge in. Allow me to explain.

These proposals acknowledge the importance of network neutrality. They make it clear that ISPs must provide a basic level of service that is neutral. But as long as they do that they are free to sell anything else as “additional services”.

So, say for example that you currently have a 8MB internet connection. There would be nothing stopping your ISP from declaring that actually, only the first 0.5MB of that is their “basic service”, and that the remaining 7.5MB was “additional services”. They wouldn’t need to change their pricing to you, you understand – you’d still pay the same 20-odd a month for a 8MB connection. So why should you care?

Well, just for example: ITV might have paid your ISP to ensure that you get their content faster. So while you really want to see Joe’s content about rare geckos (and who wouldn’t, really?), actually, you can only get that at the speed of a 0.5MB connection, but you can get ITV News content at the full speed you paid for.

That doesn’t sound so bad, though – I mean, Joe’s content is pretty niche, isn’t it? Well, yeah. But it’s what you want to look at today, and you’re paying to do it. Who’re ITV and your ISP to decide that that’s how your bandwidth should be allocated, once you’ve bought it?

Of course, the picture I’m painting isn’t what’s exactly likely to happen.

What’s more likely is that you’ll continue to pay 20 quid a month for the “basic” service – your 8MB internet. But you will be charged another couple of quid for, say, iTunes and Emusic at “premium” speed – say at 16MB speeds. And another few quid for faster delivery of YouTube and Vimeo video content. And another few quid for on-line gaming via PC, and another couple of quid for on-line gaming via Xbox, and so on, and so on. It’ll be a lot like the way people pay for TV packages.

Well, what’s the harm in that, you might say? It’ll all still be available, just a bit slower, on the basic package, which is fine for us all at the moment.

Well, a few things, but we’ll start with this question first: What’s the difference between a race where you give one or two competitors a five second head start, and a race where you give all competitors except one or two a five second handicap?

Secondly: ITV News can afford to pay your ISP in order to get their content into the “premium” category that will get delivered faster. Joe, on the other hand, has lizards to feed, and doesn’t make much money off his website, and so can’t. Why should ITV News get an advantage over Joe, when his content is actually far more interesting?

Thirdly: Setting what we have now as the base past which everything else is “premium” might sound OK, but it stifles future innovation. How many people are going to want to play some form of new game, that requires loads of extra bandwidth for all the fancy graphics and sound, if it’s going to cost them an extra tenner a month from their ISP, on top of the cost of the game itself? It means that exciting new start ups of the sort that built Google and YouTube are going to have a harder and harder time. (This, by the way, is one of the reasons that I so deplore Google being involved in this. They’ve climbed up the ladder to the big kids treehouse, and now they’re helping kick the ladder down so that other kids can’t get up there as easily.)

Fourthly: In order to connect from the computer I am sitting at to the server that hosts my own website, and email, my data actually passes through networks and equipment owned by 4 different ISPs. Suppose that my home ISP’s network was happy to prioritise, say, my request for my email, and give it more bandwidth, but the ISP two steps removed wasn’t, then well, why the hell am I paying my ISP as extra fiver a month for speedy access to my email? (This is also why we in Britain need to care about a deal between two US companies – because we make use of their networks, too.)

And that last one is really the big deal. The internet is a network of networks. It only works if all those networks talk to each other on an equal footing. If one or two decide that they like things to work one way, and another two or three like it to work another, then we start to move toward a world where the content I can get via my ISP, that belongs to one cartel, is different to the content you get via yours, that belongs to another. And neither cartel has room for poor Joe and his lizards.

Any questions?

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