The borderland of net neutrality

Thank goodness the Internet is no longer an American plaything. I know, however, that what happens to the Internet in the United States is still important to what happens to the Internet elsewhere. I’m thinking particularly about the issue of Net Neutrality, which surfaces with some regularity in the U.S. and more often now in Europe and parts of Asia. Having studied and debated net neutrality for a long time, I’ll make a politician’s promise, sincere but conditional, to bring some clarity to the subject.

I’ve come to the conclusion the issue has so many valid perspectives that a single precise description of ‘Internet neutrality’ does not exist. Likewise almost all the arguments involve hypothetical outcomes, which means that anybody claiming certainty about the issue is deluded. However, because net neutrality is at the heart of who owns, controls, and prices the Internet – it is very important. It’s important to think about it, even if the inherent untidiness makes everyone unhappy.

A Bewildering Borderland

To recap briefly, although the concept of net neutrality is pulled around like taffy, it generally starts with the notion that the Internet is neutral toward the source and content of information. The Internet makes no distinction between the packets of data it carries except to know the destination in order to find the best available route.

The most pressing and ongoing controversy concerns companies that operate big parts of the Internet particularly in the U.S., such as A.T.&T. and Warner Communications, that want to charge content providers, such as Google and Microsoft, for transmitting certain kinds of data, mainly streaming media such as voice and video, which should have faster and more reliable service. The content providers are opposed to this, of course. More generally, in order to distinguish between types of Internet traffic, for example, to find out what is streaming media or not, it is necessary to analyze the source and content of packets. This analysis violates the principle of net neutrality and is seen as a threat to an open and fair Internet.

Even a barebones description like this reveals that some large forces are in play on the net neutrality issue. Unfortunately, the issue exists in an ill-defined borderland between public and commercial interests. The public interest says protect the Internet and its equal access to information. The commercial interest says let us be free to improve the Internet and earn a profit from doing so. Arguments over public and commercial issues like these go back thousands of years, at least to the Greeks and Romans; yet there is no formula for resolving the issues. In the U.S. net neutrality has been sucked into the polarity of the pervasive political framing with the Republican side screaming about government interference and the Democratic side about corporate depredation.

How Did We Get To This?

Part of the situation is historical. The Internet backbones, the trunk lines used to move the bulk of traffic nationally and internationally have always operated on common carrier principles. In the tradition of the national telephone systems, those who owned the Internet backbone lines were prohibited from discriminating among who or what was being carried.

In the U.S., in August of 2005 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruled that phone companies had the right to offer services (beyond access) for their own broadband networks. This opened the regulatory door to premium Quality of Service (QoS) offerings. In September, the FCC announced the phase out of line-sharing, the practice under common carrier laws where ISPs must rent bandwidth to other companies. This followed an FCC re-classification of cable ISPs, already exempt from common carrier rules, from telecommunication to information services, a change that gave cable companies exclusive control over the kinds of data they carry. These and other FCC rulings and statements of direction signaled to ISPs (telephone and cable) that many common carrier and net neutrality restrictions were or will be removed.

At roughly the same time as the change in FCC policy, Congress tackled the re-writing of the 1996 Communications Act. This was largely in recognition that new technologies will (or should) change the communications landscape and that new laws, subsidies, and competitive safeguards should be put in place. Between Congress and the FCC, broad changes in U.S. communications policy are afoot, most of which is avidly supported by the communications industry, and which I note makes howling about the potential of bumbling government intervention on net neutrality more than a little hypocritical.

The Router Revolution

Outside the focus on the net neutrality brouhaha sits a lamentably unquantified and poorly described technical problem: Does the Internet have the capacity to handle world-wide phone, television, movie and other media traffic? If not, who will build that capacity and how does it get paid for?

Content providers already pay for huge bandwidth (T1, T3 lines and so forth) to move data to and from their servers. Consumers pay for more bandwidth (256 kb/s, 1 mb/s, etc.) to move packets faster to and from their homes and businesses. If you want more speed, you get a bigger pipe and pay for it. However, the big ISPs say this is not going to be enough to fund the necessary upgrades to the system, by which they mean laying fiber optic cable on either end of the backbone (first mile/last mile).

What they want is to also charge for faster routing. Right now, all packets entering the Internet are handled the same way. Routers check the header for destination and search for optimal routes. Not long ago this was all that routers could do efficiently, but the new generations of equipment can determine who sent the packets and what’s in them and use that information to move them in faster channels. For a price, say the ISPs, performance critical packets like telephone conversations can be guaranteed real-time quality of service.

The Router as Pandora’s Box

No doubt the new routers can discriminate among the packets, and faster routing over dedicated channels can improve the quality of streaming media. In the United States the FCC is clearing the way for ISPs to charge for it. However, there are questions that should be answered:

Will charging for premium transmission cover the cost of upgrading the networks? I have seen only vague hand waving by the communications industry about costs and income streams. Are these to be charges in perpetuity? Most of the cost of laying cable is up front.

Is this the only way to pay for upgrades to the network? Is commercial ownership of the new fiber optic cable the only model? (This is a rhetorical question, of course. Other countries do it in many different ways.)

Once the right exists to open any and all packets, to inspect their headers and contents, what is the potential for abuse and who monitors it? It may be a classic slippery slope: At the start, it’s a benign commercial transaction. Further down the slope companies that don’t pay can be poorly routed, delayed, or even blocked. Somewhere on the slope a step is made from analyzing packets for commercial purposes to analyzing packets for political, social, religious, criminal, or other purposes. As routers become increasingly sophisticated, the ways of analyzing and “handling” packets will become equally subtle and potentially insidious.

What will be the impact on the overall costs of Internet access and who will (ultimately) pay it? Will there be a two-tiered Internet, where there are those with premium services, and those who don’t? What does that mean for average consumers? It might be good to have an equivalent of an environmental impact statement, a study or three that examines economic and social effects of new communications policy.

Get Real: It’s Government Compromise and the Courts

At some point governments around the world are almost certain to make an effort to de-couple the net neutrality issue from prevailing ‘fairness’ controls. This will be difficult because many opposing parties will mobilize, but the biggest money probably favors the decoupling. Regardless of ideology, in most countries the battle will be governmental and regulatory.

If the resolution to the net neutrality issue takes longer than some would like, that may not be all bad. There are questions to be answered. The issues surrounding the future of communications are complex and hypothetical. We will not get instant and detailed truths. This is especially true since the technological environment is in constant change. Compromise will be necessary, laws and policy may have to be conditional or even experimental. In any case, batteries of lawyers are standing by to see any aspect of net neutrality in court. It’s going to be messy, but it is quintessentially modern: A battle between technological capabilities and the human capacity to use or abuse them.

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