What is Net Neutrality?

Posted December 12, 2017.Net-neutrality,Web.2473 words.

Diving into Net Neutrality, this report will examine why it is so controversial. It will outline the social, economic, and technical arguments both for and against. Finishing with a discussion.

  • CCS Concepts: Social and Professional Topics → Net Neutrality.
  • General Terms: Networks, History, Politics.
  • Keywords: Net Neutrality, Free Speech, Internet, World Wide Web.

Introduction

We live in the information age. Today people can effortlessly research, create, and communicate with anyone on earth in a fraction of a second. But where did it begin?

A Brief History

The internet has a long history over nearly five decades. Different networks have come and gone including Minitel in France, and ARPANET in the USA. ARPANET, along with TCP/IP set the stage for the internet - a network of networks. But, what is a network without content? Protocols emerged to share content such as Usenet, SMTP, Gopher, and most importantly HTTP or the Web.

In August 1991 Sir Tim Berners-Lee, employed at CERN, released his web browser, the very first, into the world. Named “WorldWideWeb”, the prototype had a graphical user interface, supported semantic structures and allowed linking, but was ultimately limited to just text 1.

Competition formed, and the web quickly evolved. New semantics, images, interactivity, and videos were each added. Each possible by ever increasing computing power 2 and the move from dialup to broadband 3.

Today, demand for these new ‘data-hungry formats’, has sparked a worldwide about Net Neutrality, and what role service providers should serve. Should they simply be common carriers (An indiscriminate public service 4), or should they have the power to control and manipulate the data passing through their network. What impact would this have on the internet?

What is Net Neutrality?

Coined by Tim Wu in 2003, a neutral network is one that neither favours nor restricts the user’s access to any networked resource 5. The service provider must act as a common carrier, treating all data equally as it transports data between clients.

There are different levels of Net Neutrality, varying from complete freedom with no restrictions, near freedom with a select list of typically illegal sites blocked, to little or no freedom where either the service provider or government controls what you can see and how you use the internet.

Net Neutrality Around the World

Fig.1. Net Neutrality Worldwide 6.

Many countries and organisations worldwide support, or have heard proposals about Net Neutrality including the EU 7, the USA, and India. However, many more either simply ignored the issue, or explicitly oppose Net Neutrality, including China with their ‘Great Firewall’. Interestingly, while the Americas and Europe near universally support Net Neutrality, Asia is mixed, and not a single African country supports Net Neutrality.

In Africa, this could be due to limited broadband penetration with poor quality of service 8. Focus is likely on more pressing issues.

Why is is Controversial?

Net Neutrality has been all over the news in recent weeks since the FCC vowed to repeal Net Neutrality legislation 9. After entering office, President Trump appointed Ajit Pai as chairman of the FCC 10 to enact “light-touch regulation”. He has since removed pending data protection safeguards 11, closed an investigation into Net Neutrality violations 12, ignored public comments 13, “joked” about being a puppet 14, and formally started the process of repealing Net Neutrality in the USA.

Online, there has been a huge response 15 mostly in favour of Net Neutrality. Battleforthenet.com was created to help concerned citizens comment and organise nationwide protests 16. Giants such as Facebook and Google spoke up. Social media was ablaze!

Some saw it as an attempt to “ruin the internet”, in favour of corporate interests 17. It is true that repealing Net Neutrality would grant service providers greater control, potentially causing damage to the internet. But, a reduced legislative overhead could be for the best. In the USA, Net Neutrality is relatively new with President Obamas administration only enacting it late 2010 18. The internet grew up without and could continue without it. This report will attempt to unbiasedly cover arguments for, and against Net Neutrality, following with a brief discussion on the topic. 

Why Support Net Neutrality?

MEO App Bundles

Fig.2. MEO App Bundles 19.

Net Neutrality helps foster competition. Without Net Neutrality, service providers can zero-rate certain services, sell bundles, and encourage users to forgo alternatives to save on their data cap 19. Superficially, this seems fine, who would not want free data? Unfortunately, by favouring incumbents, zero-rating creates an additional barrier to entry making the internet less innovative. A small start-up has neither the time, nor money to negotiate with every service provider worldwide. Incumbents do.

Not only can service providers zero-rate competitors, but without Net Neutrality, they would be free to create ‘fast-lanes’ and a ‘slow-lanes’. For example, by refusing to peer with Level3 (An internet backbone) without payment, service providers in the USA essentially throttled sites connecting through Level3. Inevitably, Level3 had little choice but pay 20. But, throttling doesn’t need to be subtle. Service providers could simply throttle traffic to certain sites, or certain protocols. Many service providers, including Janet, throttle BitTorrent to reduce illegal filesharing 21. But, even BitTorrent has legitimate uses. As an experiment, the author tried to download the latest Ubuntu release via HTTPS and BitTorrent. HTTPS could nearly saturate the connection, but with BitTorrent they were lucky to get 40KB/s.

Net Neutrality is freedom of speech, an attack on one is an attack on both 22. Without Net Neutrality, service providers are granted the ability to, and may be forced to promote ideas and services above others, throttle and degrade what they wish to bury, and censor what they do not want to show. It is hard to argue against stopping the distribution of pirated works, terroristic materials, illegal pornography, and hard drugs. So, most service providers implement some form of blocking either at the DNS or IP level. But blocking internet traffic, while easy, is never truly going to stop distribution. All have happily moved to the Dark web 23. So, the content is accessible with the infrastructure still exists. A change in opinion may lead to a slippery slope. You need Net Neutrality.

Net Neutrality helps spur infrastructure investment, by treating data equally, companies have much greater incentive to improve infrastructure increasing bandwidth and decreasing latency. Decades ago, full HD video streaming would be unimaginable, but now, with widespread fast internet access (In the developed world) 24 new ideas become possible. Services like Twitch, and Netflix have had a huge impact, and are possible because of infrastructure improvements in mostly neutral networks. Non-neutrality would stall this progress.

Why Oppose Net Neutrality?

Nicholas Negroponte argues that “net neutrality doesn’t make sense” 25, as different people, send different data, of different importance, over the internet. This is true, Netflix alone accounts for 35.2% of bandwidth consumed in the Americas 26! A nonneutral network allows service providers to shape traffic, prioritise content, and throttle when necessary infrastructure cannot cope with current demands. Without Net Neutrality, service providers can make more efficient use of existing infrastructure, saving company money and keeping shareholders happy.

True Net Neutrality forbids zero-rating where either the service provider, or an internet company sponsors internet access, giving user’s free, or reduced-cost access. In India and Africa, there have been schemes giving those without desire or ability to pay, free access to a subset of the internet. One example is Internet.org, a collaboration between Facebook, Opera, and several manufacturers 27, aiming to “provide people with access to basic websites for free” 28. Basic websites typically included Facebook, Wikipedia, and other select sites. In the UK mobile operators have zero-rated certain social-media networks, and streaming providers 29 as a customer bonus. With true Net Neutrality, these schemes are illegal. In fact, last year Internet.org was banned from India for violating Net Neutrality 30.

Libertarians might argue that legislating Net Neutrality is a form of governmental overreach, putting undue burden on service providers. And, even if Net Neutrality is a noble goal, it could be but a ‘trojan-horse’, a stepping stone to even greater governmental interference. They should be able to offer their service with whatever terms they desire, letting the customer decide. Without Net Neutrality, there is no burden, helping spurt investment and innovation into the internet, by supporting service providers “property rights, individual freedom, and the free market” 31.

As demonstrated by China, filtering and throttling external sites allows either an organisation, or country to promote and grow their own alternative services until they are ready to compete on the world stage. Because of the ‘Great Firewall’, China has homegrown versions of Google (Baidu), Facebook (WeChat), Twitter (Weibo), and Amazon (Tao Bao). These services cater to the people and their government in a way that western companies such as Google never could 32. 

Discussion

While both sides present good arguments, this author personally supports Net Neutrality, hoping for its adoption and defence worldwide. By keeping the internet unfiltered and open, Net Neutrality enables the freedom, organic growth, and innovation the internet has seen over recent decades. As a consumer, if you trust your government there is little reason to oppose Net Neutrality, other than free internet schemes including Internet.org. Besides, other zero-rating schemes should be considered harmful.

An internet without Net Neutrality is free for service providers, but far too limiting for consumers. While less an issue in the UK due to unbundling of infrastructure and service, in countries such as the USA, consumers may have little choice or leverage with service providers. Free markets require competition, which is why I find the libertarian view moot.

Over the coming decades, this author hopes to see internet access improving as the “next billion users” come online for the first time, quality of service improving as service providers invest in their infrastructure, and that the internet remains open for everyone. The information age has only just begun!


References

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