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Sunday, May 04, 2014

Don't be fooled about Net Neutrality

The provocative title is so that I can air a grievance that I have about the way internet providers (cable companies and mobile operators) are presenting the Net Neutrality discussion that is flooding the interwebz right now.

Basically articles about Net Neutrality are way too long and are often misleading. I will try to continue in that line ;-) At least the way-too-long is almost unavoidable. Misleading I try not to be.
I must admit I am still fully comprehending it myself, but the term Net Neutrality should speak for itself. To me it means what it says, but to add a couple more words to make it nice and clear.
"Net Neutrality is about having a neutral internet."

However, the EU likes to define it as:
"the principle according to which all internet traffic is treated equally, without discrimination, restriction or interference, independently of its sender, recipient, type, content, device, service or application." (citation)

Right, well at least my definition is clear, the EU may need to work on theirs.

My personal grievance however is that the providers are selling very hard at the moment the idea that to ensure Net Neutrality, bandwidth-hungry services like Netflix should pay them (the providers) to sit on a separate infrastructure and therefore not clog up the net for all the other services, apps and web sites out there. Otherwise when the first episode of the new season of Game of Thrones is aired exclusively on Netflix, internet connections everywhere may just stop working because the Netflix traffic is so high.

This view is the view of internet providers, be it fixed wire (adsl, cable) or a mobile provider who sells data bundles. (no citation).
Of course it's great for providers. They basically want companies like Netflix to give them cash that they can use to build their infrastructure. Or pay their CEOs bigger bonuses. Whatever, it's additional income, but of course the providers say they will use this cash to build better networks and that it's the only way to stop networks getting clogged up with other bandwidth hungry services like Netflix.

Right. So the providers want this new revenue stream. That's clear. But is it better for the end user and let's not forget the original topic, is this pro- Net Neutrality?

No of course it's not neutral. It's Net Non-neutrality.

There is nothing neutral about a company like Netflix paying providers Comcast and Verizon for a guaranteed high bandwidth pipe to get all those TV series in HD to the people at home. It's not neutral. It's just not, It's a company paying a fee to get special treatment. But this is where you start to realise why Net Neutrality is getting confusing.

I say that in the topic of Net Neutrality, you either have
1) 100% Net Neutrality
2) or you don't have Net Neutrality.

And when you don't have Net Neutrality (let's call it "Net Non-neutrality") all you can do is justify why you don't.

And there are two flavours of this "Net Non-neutrality":
1) Positive Net Non-neutrality
2) Negative Net Non-neutrality

For me the Positive Net Non-neutrality can be justified ("justifiable Net Non-neutrality" if you like).

Negative Net Non-neutrality is where net traffic is selectively disadvantaged on the network. Bad, bad, bad. Everyone knows it's bad and everyone basically agrees with that (sorry, impossible to find citation). That would for example be a situation where an provider prioritises one type of traffic over another. E.g. the network is busy so the provider lets Skype traffic through before Facebook traffic. The reason they decide to do this isn't important for now: it could be because they themselves think it's giving their customers a better service (experience) of because Skype paid them to do that.
But this is bad.
In the latest draft EU “telecoms” package legislation "Measures to block or slow down the Internet would be allowed only in exceptional cases, e.g. where specifically ordered by a court." (citation) so there's not really any way providers can get away with Negative Net Non-neutrality as I'm calling it.

Positive Net Non-neutrality is where net traffic is - let's say - given an advantage. And this supposedly happens without disadvantaging other traffic. This is what providers are promoting. What will give them a new revenue stream. But are they promoting it as Positive Net non-Neutrality? Er, no. Obviously. They are selling it as Net Neutrality.
And the EU has basically flung the door wide open allowing for this to happen. They've proposed that:
"Companies would still able to offer specialized services of higher quality, such as video on demand and business-critical data-intensive cloud applications, provided that this does not interfere with the internet speeds promised to other customers" (citation)
So to me the EU voted for Positive Net Non-neutrality.
To summarise what the EU voted (on Thursday 3rd April 2014) on the topic of Net Neutrality. They voted in support of the proposals made. So what they actually voted was:
- against Negative Net Non-neutrality
- in support of Positive Net Non-neutrality
In other words, providers can't block Netflix traffic, but they can charge Netflix for guaranteed traffic.
See a problem here? The EU have given us a hint of Net Neutrality with one part of the law, but snatched it away again with the other part.
But the important question really isn't, "Do we have 100% Net Neutrality?". The answer is simply "No!".
The question isn't "How much profit will providers stand to make from charging the Netflixes of this world for guaranteed bandwidth?". The answer is "lots!".
The important questions are:
 - "Is this going to be good or bad for the consumer in the long term?"
But equally if not even more important:
 - "How will this affect, change and reshape the internet that we know today into something else?"
Because it *will* change the internet that we know today.

To fast-track (skip) my analysis on "Is it going to be good or bad for the consumer long term?" I am going to say that it will be GOOD! It will most likely benefit the consumer long term.

My grievance however - and I find it a big one - is that we are being sold Positive Net Non-neutrality as "Net Neutrality" with the implication that we are getting a truly neutral Net. That's the name of the topic yes, but will the Net be neutral? No.

That doesn't mean to say that we wouldn't be OK in a true Net Neutrality situation. I think it would.
It will be interesting to analyse the pros and cons of Positive Net Non-neutrality and commercial network infrastructure growth versus true Net Neutrality and organic network infrastructure in an edit to this post or in a new post.

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