Back in July, I wrote about a consultation on net neutrality from the EU, entitled On-line public consultation on "specific aspects of transparency, traffic management and switching in an Open Internet". Just to remind you, here's the background:
This public consultation seeks responses to specific questions on transparency, switching and certain aspects of traffic management which emerged as key issues in the net neutrality debate that has taken place in Europe over the past years.
In order to allow consumers to have access to Internet service offers that truly meet their needs and to enable them to effectively exercise their choices, the Commission is envisaging policy measures addressing the issues of transparency, switching and certain aspects of traffic management, including deep packet inspection (DPI). DPI technologies examine different layers (header and content) of data packets to decide whether a packet may pass or needs to be routed to a different destination. DPI can be used to protect the network and users against malware (viruses etc.) but also to block or slow down other data packets. Union-wide guidance on these issues would avoid diverging approaches in the Member States and a fragmentation of the Digital Single Market.
The bad news is that this consultation closes on Monday (well, I did mention it three months ago, so you can't really complain....). The good news is that it can be done online in five minutes: here for organisations, and here for individuals. As you can see from the questions [.pdf], this is essentially asking us what we think about the loss of net neutrality. This means all we need to do is to tell them that we don't like it, don't want it and expect the European Commission to stop it.
As for packet prioritisation and DPI, as I've suggested before, if we're going to do the former it must be completely under the control of the user, not the ISP, and DPI should never be used since it is an extremely intrusive approach.
It's true that it's not easy to express these views given the very rigid format of the consultation adopted by the European Commission. Indeed, this use of inflexible Web-based questionnaires is becoming something of a problem. Fortunately, you can also send a response by email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Here's what I've sent, which is largely based on my earlier writings on net neutrality over the last couple of years. If you have a moment, please make a submission too – net neutrality matters, and it's under serious attack at the moment.
One of the key facts to bear in mind when considering issues of net neutrality is the fact that the Internet works. Over the last two decades it has produced an unprecedented series of technical innovations that have already transformed many branches of everyday life, and the pace of change shows no sign of abating. If anything, the Internet and the novel ideas it is built on are embedding themselves even deeper into modern society.
As a result, a paramount consideration must be to preserve an ecology that has functioned and continues to functions so well. To allow changes to be made without considerable evidence that they will help rather than harm the functioning of the Internet would be ill-advised.
Although the Internet consists of many elements, operating at many levels, one of the core reasons that innovation has flourished is precisely because the principle of net neutrality has always been assiduously preserved.
There is no better example of this than the rise of the World Wide Web. Hard though it may be to believe for people today, but once there was no Web on the Internet. Instead, there were other services like Gopher and WAIS. And then, in August 1991, Tim Berners-Lee announced a new way of using the Internet, which he called the World Wide Web.
Imagine if net neutrality had not been in operation at that time. Then operators of other services on the Internet – sensing perhaps that this new Web might be a challenge to them – could have paid to ensure that their services were always delivered more speedily than any Web traffic. As a result, the Web would have appeared interesting but slow to users, who would probably have stayed with their current providers.
In fact, no less a person than Sir Tim Berners-Lee himself says this might have happened, in a post called "Net Neutrality: This is serious" about the threat to net neutrality in the US (at http://dig.csail.mit.edu/breadcrumbs/node/144):
"When I invented the Web, I didn't have to ask anyone's permission. Now, hundreds of millions of people are using it freely. I am worried that that is going end in the USA.
I hope that Congress can protect net neutrality, so I can continue to innovate in the internet space. I want to see the explosion of innovations happening out there on the Web, so diverse and so exciting, continue unabated"
Net neutrality is about preserving a level playing field so that innovation can emerge and flourish unhindered by incumbents who might otherwise use their chequebooks to throttle fledgling services. It is about ensuring that the net remains a hotbed of creativity, and does not ossify or become captured by powerful but sclerotic industries.
Thus I believe that it is important to legislate against any moves to violate net neutrality. In the same post quoted above, Berners-Lee explains well why we need to introduce this:
"There have been suggestions that we don't need legislation because we haven't had it. These are nonsense, because in fact we have had net neutrality in the past — it is only recently that real explicit threats have occurred.
Yes, regulation to keep the Internet open is regulation. And mostly, the Internet thrives on lack of regulation. But some basic values have to be preserved. For example, the market system depends on the rule that you can't photocopy money. Democracy depends on freedom of speech. Freedom of connection, with any application, to any party, is the fundamental social basis of the Internet, and, now, the society based on it."
Of course, it is not enough simply to enforce net neutrality in isolation: it is also crucially important to address the other issues facing the growth of the Internet, specifically the threat of congestion.
That threat is certainly real, but it seems to me that some companies are using that real problem to justify inappropriate solutions that promote their own agendas. For example, a trivial solution to problems of congestion is to upgrade the entire network, giving everyone faster connections. That, of course, would require investment in the appropriate infrastructure, and many companies prefer not to take on those costs, and to address the issue by throttling their users' connection, say.
That is understandable, but not necessarily acceptable: the Internet will need upgrading anyway, for many years to come. So companies cannot avoid making investments eventually. They are simply trying to put that time off in order to increase the return on their previous investments. Again, that is perfectly understandable, given the way companies work, but it is not for the European Commission to endorse that particular approach. Instead, it should take a neutral point of view, and seek to encourage a solution that maximises the benefit for all concerned – the companies supplying the connection and the users.
So the question then becomes: how can congestion be managed without destroying one of the Internet's foundational properties? It is a clichÃ© that if you cannot measure something, you cannot manage it. Similarly, if Internet users were able to see the details of their connection, it would be relatively simple for them to adjust those according to their needs. This would put users in charge of their traffic management, not the ISPs.
For this to work, users might be given a certain allowance of priority traffic each month. If they wanted to watch a video on demand stream, they could ensure that delivery were prioritised by assigning some of that allowance to that service for a fixed period. If users found they needed more priority bandwidth they could purchase this – either as a one-off, or by moving to a higher tier service.
Note that Net neutrality would not be endangered by this approach, because the power resides with the user. So if some new Internet-based service came along, it might be prioritised by those users attacted by its possibilities, but could not be throttled by existing players in the Internet world, however much they feared it, since they would have no simple means of influencing millions of individual subscribers.
Moreover, this approach would obviate the need for Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) completely. That is crucially important, since DPI is an extremely intrusive method that violates a user's privacy in the worst possible way. Indeed, as part of its protection of net neutrality, the European Commission should make such use of DPI illegal for all ISPs.
The two key points I would like to emphasise, then, are preserving net neutrality, which has served the Internet – and the world – so well, and allowing users to manage their traffic by going beyond simple transparency to full control. The former will allow the next Web to emerge; the latter will enable users to make choices about their Internet connections while permitting the companies that provide the Internet's infrastructure to make sensible business investments for the future.