Policy - Net Neutrality

Among all the various Internet governance and policy debates is one topic guaranteed to inflame any debate: that of net neutrality.

I have, over the years, written a good deal about net neutrality. I have also learned that the term very much symbolizes a number of relatively unrelated topics, which become interchangeably linked, and this causes an incredible amount of confusion.

As ISOC summarize on their webpage on net neutrality[1]:

The Internet Society works on a range of issues that fall under the umbrella of net neutrality, including:

  • • Allowing the freedom of expression
  • • Supporting user choice
  • • Preventing discrimination

We also work with local and global businesses to develop solutions around things like:

  • • Network traffic management
  • • Pricing
  • • Business models

Call me an engineer, but just the scope of the list itself tells me that net neutrality has just become a policy “bucket” for policy makers to raise when they want to create a lot of debate, and look participant in a range of issues, while ensuring that there can barely be one policy that covers the range of issues required.

For me, the net neutrality debate struggles most with one underlying problem: the Internet doesn't actually exist(!). I am sure if it did then it would be neutral, but the term “Internet” is an abstract platonic ideal or even a collective noun describing in a singular way what in practice is a network of heterogeneous networks, each different, and each interconnected in a different way.

The ability for a poorly connected hosting farm with a single server, and located at the leaf of a sprawling remote network, to deliver a good quantity of content - such as a video stream - to a large user audience in another country is, in principle, much less likely than if those users are served by hundreds of servers located in a data hosting center co-located with their ISP. Even if all traffic on both systems is treated with neutrality, it is clear that one service will be better than the other.

With some of the slowest devices online still running at 9.6kbps, one way to ensure network neutrality would be to slow the net down to the lowest common denominator. But obviously that idea is mad. Forcing all networks to interface equally to achieve a neutral state is a ridiculous idea.

Another problem that some of the net neutrality debaters have is with competition. They see the ability to afford access to a CDN as a competition issue: smaller organizations often cannot afford access to their target market through a CDN, so those that do have something of a competitive advantage when guaranteeing SLA of premium content delivery. Some of these debates also talk about ISPs' “throttling” back services that may compete with other closer partners' services. Of course, all this leads to a fear that the likes of Netflix will tie up deals on various ISP networks, where it is essentially the only watchable platform.

In practice, throttling is only possible in areas where the traditional telecoms regulation has left the landscape uncompetitive. If a BT customer has a sense that channell.tv (for example) was throttled on BT's service to the detriment of the users' experience, then the users may switch to Virgin or another ISP. However, in some areas only cable broadband is available, so it may not be that (for example) a Comcast customer can switch. This would indeed make it difficult if Comcast did throttle channell.tv, perhaps in favor of comcastchannell. tv. In reality, there is very little evidence for such anticompetitive service throttling. Most of the examples given have subsequently been proved to be traffic shaped by other events or by simply wrongly interpreted data. It is not without possibility, though, and some more intensive oversight may lessen throttling on a region-by-region basis. It is clear that in broad terms competition at many levels is fundamentally manageable through regional policy to ensure that companies play fair. However, any sense that the Internet can be transformed into a perfect scheme, with every service is equally deployed, is fantastical in the extreme.

For this reason CDNs will increasingly form a natural part of the network architecture landscape, and individuals will increasingly be able to use services such as those provided by public cloud operators like AWS to launch cheap, scalable, and well-connected service models, starting from bootstrap and growing with them to become global operators. Indeed that wonderfully woolly term “cloud” in some ways is taking the heat out of policy debates about the much more woolly term “net neutrality.”

As a final comment, most people - at least those I know - believe that from an individual or even a company's point of view, equal access (to your competition) to given services is something of a right to demand. However, the practical reality is that commercial forces and technical evolution construct something of a postcode lottery about what service level can “actually” be accessed. That is not because you are being discriminated against; it is much more down to an almost chaotic number of service-affecting variables that are introduced for the delivery of any given Internet connection.

  • [1] http://www.internetsociety.org/net-neutrality
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