Don't be Neutral about Net Neutrality


It was with a certain smugness that I viewed the heated US debates about “net neutrality” - the concept that Internet traffic should be delivered from end to end without paying any attention to what that traffic represented. I was delighted that the idea that the rich could buy priority delivery for their bits showed no signs of catching on over here, where we seemed to have a much more sensible and egalitarian approach.

No more. According to this report:

Virgin Media CEO Neil Berkett has attacked the principle of net neutrality, whereby internet service providers do not interfere with or degrade the speed at which content is delivered from websites to consumers, branding it as "b****cks".

There's nothing like a mature, adult response to complex questions – and that was nothing like a mature, adult response.

So, what's at issue here?

When traffic is sent over the Internet, a bit is a bit is a bit: there is no discrimination according to whether that bit is part of a word (email), a sound (an mp3 file) or video (streaming video). It is simply bunged in with all the others and delivered as best as the interconnecting networks can manage. That's network neutrality.

Those against it, like the eloquent Mr Berkett, want to prioritise some bits – not, of course, because they believe strongly that email must always get through, while boring old videos can hang around a bit, or vice versa – but simply because they think that can squeeze some extra money out of people in doing so. And remember, this is *extra* money, because both the people sending bits, and the people receiving are already paying for their connectivity. So it's not even double-dipping, but triple-dipping.

One of the arguments trotted out in favour of discrimination is the analogy with package delivery. Why, these people innocently ask, is it fine for delivery companies to charge different rates for different speeds - extra for overnight delivery and so on? - but not for bits? But what these apologists conveniently overlook is that the delivery company does not discriminate on the basis of content – what the packet contains – but purely on how fast it is sent. The equivalent for bits is not to discriminate among bits on the basis of their content, but simply to allow companies to buy faster Internet connections – which, last time I looked, was something fairly easy to arrange.

Independently of the fact that false analogies are being used, it is a valid question as to why the loss of net neutrality be a problem. The answer is that it comes down to level playing fields. Once net neutrality is lost, it's much easier for incumbents to block new entrants by condemning new services to the Internet slow lane, and making them far less attractive – Berkett actually talks about “bus lanes” for non-paying bits, but bus lanes are supposed to be faster than ordinary traffic lanes, so he seems a little confused here.

Indeed, without net neutrality, we probably wouldn't have seen the Web take off as it has, if other, closed online services had been able to pay extra for fast delivery, and hobbled the dangerous newcomer. As Sir Tim Berners-Lee himself explained:

When, seventeen years ago, I designed the Web, I did not have to ask anyone's permission. The Web, as a new application, rolled out over the existing Internet without any changes to the Internet itself. This is the genius of the design of the Internet, for which I take no credit. Applying the age old wisdom of design with interchangeable parts and separation of concerns, each component of the Internet and the applications that run on top of it are able develop and improve independently. This separation of layers allows simultaneous but autonomous innovation to occur at many levels all at once. One team of engineers can concentrate on developing the best possible wireless data service, while another can learn how to squeeze more and more bits through fiber optic cable. At the same time, application developers such as myself can develop new protocols and services such as voice over IP, instant messaging, and peer-to-peer networks. Because of the open nature of the Internet's design, all of these continue to work well together even as each one is improving itself.

It is this mixing of layers, for example by linking the content with the transport, that is so dangerous. It puts a brake on that smooth roll-out of new services. If we allow net neutrality to be lost, we risk losing the incredible innovation that has driven forward the Internet at a pace unprecedented in history, and which has brought with it so many benefits for business and general users alike. That seems a high price to pay just to make Sir Richard Branson and others even richer.

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