21 April, 2008

Net Neutrality

My opinion in this subject is, unsurprisingly, somewhat inexpert but I feel it's a debate worthy issue (ie: I'm running it at some point) so I might as well pass some comment on it!

The first problem with net neutrality is that it doesn't mean just one thing specifically. It's broad meaning is that on the internet, traffic shouldn't be prioritised in anyway. An example would be when you make a phone call, you expect it to connect regardless of who you're phoning and on what network. On the rare exceptions that it doesn't connect, it's either because the line is busy (new year, for example) or because, for exceptional reasons, other calls have been given priority (for example, the 7/7 bombings in London meant emergency calls got priority). So net neutrality isn't an absolute, but it is a good general rule to be broken only in exceptional circumstances.

Broadly speaking, there seem to be three principle meanings of net neutrality:
(1) absolute net neutrality: Everyone gets equal access, all data is treated equally. When the internet is busy, it slows down for everyone.
(2) limited discretion without quality of service tiering: similar to the above, but occasionally someone gets priority. This is not on a 'paid for' basis however, everyone has fundamentally rhe same access
(3) limited discretion and tiering: If you pay more for your connection charge, your internet traffic gets priority over the person who paid less. Companies such as Eclipse operate this system in the UK already.

So why is this an issue now?

Well, it's been coming up for a while as the internet offers more and more programmes which need large amounts of data to work. Even sites such as nationalrail or multimap use more bandwidth now than they did 12 months ago, and they perform reasonable simple operations. You've probably noticed how slowly many Facebook pages open now because their owner has so many applications on them. Broadband means people are less likely to stickat just downloading a single song or a single tv programme, they want the who album or series. Their download moves from 5mb and 350mb a time to 100mb and 6gb respectively. However, ISPs have largely been able to cope with the traffic caused by this, especially for downloads.

A year ago, if you were using 20gb a month, the ISP knew you weren't just reading text pages or going on youtube occasionally, it was fairly clear you were downloading films etc. You knew you were doing wrong, the ISP knew you were doing wrong and so even though you'd signed up for 'unlimited' internet, in reality, the 'fair usage policy' was an effective threat.

About a year ago, the BBC introduced its i-player. About 6 months ago, it began to allow people to stream programmes rather than downloading them. The number of people taking up the offer to watch TV programmes legally was huge. ISPs in the UK are complaining that they can't handle the additional bandwidth needed for this. Most people are pointing out that the service was sold as 'unlimited' and the ISPs should provide.

No doubt internet traffic is going to grow and grow. The amount of space available, one assumes, cannot expand indefinitely. At some point, therefore, access is going to have to be restricted.

In my mind, there are three models for this:
(1) The way internet is commonly advertised in the UK is as '2 mb download limit', '20 mb download limit' and 'unlimited' (or similar). The price of the 'unlimited' packages would have to increase fairly substantially to reduce internet usage and the lower download limit packages should explain exactly what a person gets for 2 mb. So, solution 1 is just an expansion of the currant system
(2) people explicitly pay for priority (like the eclipse link mentioned earlier). If you are on the £10 package, you get the lowest priority. In the evening, your internet slows to snail speed and so you set up most of your downloads to take place at night when it's faster. If you pay a bit more, you're less affected by busy periods. If you pay the most, your internet is always the fastest possible.
(3)The 'everyone suffers' model: most people still sign up for 'unlimited' broadband because it's still cheap, no one is explicitly prioritise and so when the net is busy, all suffer equally.

I'm not wholly sure what is the most desirable. I've been on the lowest tariff of model 2 and in the evenings by internet was slower than dial up. I had to use the 'text only' versions of most pages. I wasn't able to change my option easily (it meant typing into a new 12 month contract). If people could change their option instantly, say, a 1 month long contract, I could support option 2 a lot more.

Option 1's weakness is people's ignorance. People genuinely don't understand how much 2mb of data is. and even if it's explained to them, will forget until they are charged for the extra usage. Whilst I'm usually a fan of the 'stupid people can't be helped' variety of policy, I can't help but feel when something is reasonably complicated we should probably cut them a little more slack.

Option 3 is what will happen if nothing happens and the amount of internet space can't expand. It's basically the NHS version of the internet, but without the option of going private.

My hope is that technology will keep up or have a new breakthrough. With computers and the internet still be very new technology on the grand scale of things, I hope someone clever in a lab somewhere comes up with an idea so net neutrality can be maintained without anyone having to suffer.

There is one other, less contraversial, issue on this topic. Some ISPs want to try and prevent their customers from connecting to (legal) material on the internet. I don't think anyone woul;d object to laws preventing connection to what is clearly illegal material (child porn, for example), where material is doubtful, the customer should be allowed to download and just be prosecuted later (torrent hosting sites usually contain copyrighted material, but there can be a legal use for torrents too). But where there is no doubt over the legality, and it is only because the ISP has a competitive interest in restricting access (for example, if google.com were an ISP, it may want to restrict access to yahoo.com, its rival) then I would argue that ISPs should not, generally, be allowed to do so. If they wanted to offer a lower priced, restrictive package but where the customer was explicitly told which sites were blocked, I would have no problem. But I don't trust them to be clear and explicit when they advertised or sold the restrictive passage.

I think my main support from net neutrality comes from the angle that although I broadly support the concept of caveat emptor, when it comes to internet provision, many people don't even have the basic knowledge they need to understand the marginally more complicated aspects of buying it. Giving people this knowledge is reasonable difficult and the ISPs can't be trusted to provide it in a manner which the majority can understand. In this case, therefore, I can (at least temporarily) see the point of legislating to maintain net neutrality.

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