Slow Lane

Net Neutrality? Why?

Slow LaneThe original concept of the internet was for a free and egalitarian means of moving and accessing data around the globe.  Indeed, originally, the whole idea of commercial activity on the internet was frowned upon.

Now, however, the World Wide Web has moved a bit on how we use the internet.  Although we are all dependent on it to one extent or another, there are more than nuances in the differences in the value of the different types of data traversing the underlying internet.

The ivory-towerist view is still that every entity that provides any part of the internet must be neutral in its approach to the data traversing its fiber, wire, and radio waves.  The more capitalistic view is that certain types of data should be controlled in one way or another to allow more important and/or profitable data to be dealt with more efficiently.

Both sides of the story have their merits — and both sides tend to get too entrenched and so stand in the way of any real progress.

At one stage, the downloading of torrent-based video and music was accounting for close to 50% of all internet traffic.  This peer-to-peer based approach to data, while offering a very effective high-availability model, does tend to have a large hit on available bandwidth when compared to the use of, for example, the use of a more localized content delivery network.

Spam volumes vary, according to Symantec’s tracking, from lows of around 1 trillion messages per month to highs of over 6 trillion.  Even at a few kilobytes per message, that is a lot of bandwidth and storage resources that are taking up space and using up electricity that could be saved.

As the internet of things (IoT) takes shape, and verticals such as healthcare start to move far more towards to a home-based, centrally-monitored model, with sensor and monitor data being sent back to the center and required commands being sent back out, do we really want this type of data to be drowned out by others in the locality downloading their pirated copy of “The Hunger Games” or getting yet more emails on fake Rolexes or on how to make certain parts of the body larger while others get smaller?

Sure, we can bypass all the arguments around net neutrality by going for dedicated lines.  As long as you are paying for the end-to-end connection, then neutrality doesn’t count.  However, if we are going to start saying to those with illnesses that they need to pay out for a dedicated line while little Joey next door gets all his TV and films for free down his $10 a month connection, then this isn’t really fair, is it? The concept of a dedicated line has changed over the years as well — the majority of dedicated lines are dedicated only on part of the journey — part of it is still over public lines (although tunneling may be used to provide a degree of exclusivity).

And how about all those DDoS attacks: the hacking, the viruses, the phishing messages and so on?  Should they be covered by net neutrality as well?  After all, they are just data, and all data is equal.  Surely, a cleansing of the “bad” data as close to the wire as possible is good for everyone except the bad guys?

One problem here, though.  Just who makes the rules?  Who says that this is good data and this is bad?  The argument is that allowing any movement away from complete net neutrality is just the thin edge of a very large wedge.  Repressive governments could then use the same rules to prevent — for example — political comment or suchlike.  This is already easily seen in various parts of the world where any notion of net neutrality is laughable.

However, as more and more end points do get connected to the internet and the performance and overall security of data transport becomes more of an issue, maybe it is time for each side to sit down and come up with an agreement as to what data is completely outside the scope of net neutrality.  The blocking of overt spam and the prevention of malware from spreading by the service provider as close to the point of creation — rather than at the end point as a choice by the end user — should be easy to agree on and would allow for service providers to apply tools on the wire to this end.

Further, if the internet community can agree on certain data types — such as data that can be identified as being torrent-based music or video — being “shaped” so that the priority with which they are dealt with is lowered compared to agreed higher priority data, then we start to create a self-managing, community value data policy, rather than a purely commercially driven one.

Sure, the big commerce lobbyists will still be there trying to break everything down and make it that their data always gets the highest priority.  However, by digging in and saying that all data is the same, the net neutrality idealists run the risk of the rest of the world losing patience and allowing the commercial interests to take over.  If this were to happen, then it becomes a free for all — large commercial concerns could shape or block different traffic to make their own (or partner) services look better.  At this stage, the very basis of the internet is lost.

At least with a common approach driven by the community, a best-outcome should be attainable.

About the author
Clive Longbottom
  • Jason Stamper

    Unless we want the Internet to become increasingly chaotic, with certain ‘super-users’/spammers/illegal downloaders hogging bandwidth, net neutrality is untenable, in my view. Just like every other network I can think of (power, water, motorways, etc) it needs regulation, throttling and other price-based controls for everyone to have reasonable access. On the motorways different-sized vehicles pay different rates for tax, diesel, tolls etc because they use more ‘bandwidth’. The same should apply to the Interweb.

    • Clive Longbottom

      Agreed, Jason. Taking your example a bit further, we try to keep the drunk, unlicensed driver off the motorway completely, as they make life bad for everyone. That is where I think we have to start – the low hanging fruit of the bad netizen: as long as we agree what a bad netizen is.

  • wakingtiger

    It sounds so reasonable to decide which data is just not worth giving priority to and regulating accordingly, but that’s the very problem at issue. Not having net neutrality places us forever at the mercy of valuing systems with which we are bound to disagree. Differentiating the value of data opens up abuse on a level far more consequential than clogging the pipes with spam or bit torrent streams. All you’d need to do would be to claim that legitimate data is illegitimate, and suddenly market competition and free speech are the victims. Remember SOPA? Big media companies were thrilled at the prospect of shutting down competition by simply suggesting a violation of copyright. I’m sure they’d love your idea of shutting down BitTorrent. After all, we all know that everything communicated via BitTorrent is illegal, right? Tell that to those in repressed countries subject to censorship who rely upon peer sharing methods like BitTorrent to circumvent repressive governments.

    Most innovation (in business, politics, education, etc.) is in fact disruptive of reigning institutions or business models. Once there are priority lanes, innovation is deprecated because a powerful tool exists to repress anything that falls outside of the norms. This is exactly why Comcast wants to throttle Netflix: Netflix represents an alternative business model for media that competes directly with Comcast on a fundamental level (the way PCs did with mainframe computers a generation ago).

    From a capitalist point of view, net neutrality preserves conditions that allow for innovation. Take your argument back a few years and you’ll see the problems. It would be obvious to anyone in the 60s and 70s that any data of consequence would be the official sort generated by governments and big institutions — the ones able to afford the mainframe computers of the day. Do we wish that such a narrow view of worthwhile data had been given priority or that alternate sources and types of data had been deprecated? No one could anticipate the revolution of social media and the critical importance of the very kinds of personal data that a generation ago would be utter nonsense to those at the controls. It is true that the Internet of Things means the growth of data traffic and importance — but of what kind? Net neutrality insures that we don’t cut off potential uses of data by deprecating some uses of it in favor of those that (for the moment) serve majority values. We are more likely to be wrong than right about what data is either best or worst. If you do value community self-management, this is not something that results when a small group decides (usually for commercial profit or political advantage) what is best for the rest. Our problem isn’t bandwidth being hogged or people misusing the internet; our problem is a short-sighted view of market forces leading to a willingness to let go of an open internet. Pretending that any entity or person could appropriately prioritize web traffic seriously misjudges human character and the nature of the net itself.