Say "No" to Net Neutrality Nuttiness


I'll admit it: watching the debates about net neutrality in the US, I've always felt rather smug. Not for us sensible UK chappies, I thought, the destruction of what is one of the key properties of the Internet.

No daft suggestions that big sites like Google should pay ISPs *again* for the traffic that they send out – that is, in addition to the money they and we fork over for the Internet connections we use. And now we have this:

Ofcom today published a discussion paper on the practice of internet traffic management – a technique used by network operators and internet service providers (ISPs) to stem or accelerate the flow of traffic over the web.

This practice may allow network operators and ISPs to handle traffic more efficiently, to prioritise traffic by type, to guarantee bandwidth or to block or degrade the quality of certain content.

However, it has also led to concerns that network operators and ISPs could engage in anti-competitive behaviour and suppress the quality of content from provider services.

So, the great Net Neutrality debate comes to town. To its credit, Ofcom has put together an excellent discussion paper [.pdf] My main concern is that in its desire to be even-handed it regurgitates much of the worst idiocies that have been spouted against net neutrality – including the idea that content providers should pay extra money to ISPs in order to have their bits passed on to the end-users – despite the fact that the latter are already paying for precisely this service with their subscription (if they aren't, then what *are* they paying for?)

This betrays a fundamental misunderstanding about how the Internet is made up of networks and nodes, each of which handles and pays for its own connectivity to the combined network. The idea that nodes should pay distant ISPs to have their bits delivered simply runs contrary to the whole design.

The same is true of moves to destroy net neutrality. The reason the Internet has proved such fertile ground for innovation is that it offers a completely level playing field. It provides end-to-end delivery that ignores details about what the bits may mean. As a result, anyone can – and does – invent new services all the time. Indeed, I was lucky enough to be using the Internet when things like Gopher and WAIS were still around: I experienced the rise of the Web, which took over from them because (a) it was much easier to use and more powerful and (b) nobody could stop people using it. In other words, it depended on net neutrality.

As it happens, I'm not the only one who thinks that. Here's what a certain Sir Tim Berners-Lee has to say on the subject:

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.

And presumably he will be worried it's going to end in the UK too.

He goes on to explain:

Net neutrality is this:

If I pay to connect to the Net with a certain quality of service, and you pay to connect with that or greater quality of service, then we can communicate at that level.

That's all. Its up to the ISPs to make sure they interoperate so that that happens.

Net Neutrality is NOT asking for the internet for free.

Net Neutrality is NOT saying that one shouldn't pay more money for high quality of service. We always have, and we always will.

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.

Control of information is hugely powerful. In the US, the threat is that companies control what I can access for commercial reasons. (In China, control is by the government for political reasons.) There is a very strong short-term incentive for a company to grab control of TV distribution over the Internet even though it is against the long-term interests of the industry.

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.

I urge you to read the Ofcom discussion paper, and then to make your views known – the consultation closes 9 September, so you have plenty of time (light summer reading?). You can either use the online form, or, for longer responses, send it to [email protected]. I aim to do the latter: when I've written my thoughts on the issues raised by Oftel, I'll post them here.

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