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Net neutrality debate comes to a head

Net neutrality debate enters consultation phase.

The debate about net neutrality is coming to a head. Regulators in the UK, Europe and the US have each published discussion documents about the topic, and asked for public feedback before they legislate. What's at stake, for some at least, is nothing less than the principle of free speech, which brooks no interference. For others, the issue is about the freedom to make a living from the assets they buy and maintain.

So what is net neutrality? World Wide Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee gave his definition of the concept in a blog posting: 'If I pay to connect to the Net with a certain quality of service, and you pay to connect with that or a greater quality of service, then we can communicate at that level. That's all. It's up to the Internet service providers (ISPs) to make sure they interoperate so that that happens. Net neutrality is not asking for the Internet for free. Net neutrality is not saying that one shouldn't pay more money for high quality of service. We always have, and we always will.'

Another definition, known as the 'end-to-end principle', says that 'all content must be treated alike and move at the same speed over the network'.

America's Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has defined (in a form that recalls the Soviet Union's triumphalist propaganda) Four Freedoms that ISPs should offer their customers: the freedom to access lawful content, the freedom to use applications, the freedom to attach personal devices (so long as they won't damage the network), and the freedom to access information about service plans. Since declaring its Four Freedoms, the FCC has added two more: ISPs should not discriminate among the traffic they carry; and, in a transparency requirement, ISPs should be clear with users about any traffic management policies that they apply.

Why worry?

At first glance these seem like reasonable ambitions for users to have about the Internet service they buy. So why the heated public debate? The answer is two-fold: users fear monopoly Internet access providers controlling the content they can access; network providers fear untrammeled demand for their limited capacity.

The net neutrality issue has been bubbling under for years but came to prominence following concerns that US cable TV companies, whose infrastructure often gave them effective regional monopolies on high-bandwidth connections to the home, would block access to competing TV programmes delivered over their internet connections. There was a libertarian streak to the debate, too, which said that the Internet provided an important, possibly transformative, platform for free speech and that to regulate it in any way was an attack on American values.

For and against

There are arguments for and against net neutrality. Those in favour, usually defined as including end-users, online and content-creation companies, and some of the technology companies, say that the Internet is a vital tool for freedom of expression and even that there should be a fundamental right to access an 'open Internet'. They argue that the Internet brings the possibility that any website can have a global reach far beyond that available to any ordinary broadcaster, spurring useful competition. More prosaically, as government services move online, unfettered Internet access becomes vital to full citizenship.

Those against network neutrality, usually characterised as the equipment vendors, cable and telecoms companies, argue that further industry regulation is unnecessary. They say that mandating neutral Internet access would kill the technical innovations that are being brought to bear to deal with the Internet as it is today, such as the development of content delivery networks or caching strategies to cope with file-sharing. And they want to be able to make a return on the investments necessary to service future bandwidth demands, which pure net neutrality makes more difficult.

Net neutrality advocates have gained support from the public, some of whom have been held to ransom by telecoms companies with local service monopolies. Concerns that ISPs would abuse their market power to discriminate among types of traffic were borne out in 2008 when it was discovered that ComCast was slowing the passage of file-sharing traffic over its network. Other ISPs have blocked voice over IP applications to protect voice revenues generated elsewhere in their businesses.

The concern in the UK is more prosaic, according to an Ofcom spokeswoman: 'The demand for bandwidth is growing and there have been instances where applications have caused congestion at peak times, so there are issues that need to be addressed.' The problem is becoming particularly acute in wireless networks, where data consumption has grown much more rapidly than operators expected, thanks to the advent of smartphones.

Ofcom's recent consultation document on network neutrality highlights the increasing use of Internet applications such as video, which demand higher-performance networks than email and Web browsing. Servicing such demands needs balanced investment throughout the network: there's no point in ISPs improving infrastructure if the core network cannot deliver the data they want to distribute. Network providers need to see a return on their spending.

Ofcom says its two key reasons for publishing its discussion document are to work out what its position should be on traffic discrimination, and how it should ensure that consumers understand the impact of any traffic management policies that ISPs use, so that they can make informed choices.

In practice

The most hair-shirted of the net neutrality advocates say that the principle means that all packets on a network should be treated equally, regardless of the consequences. This absolute equality would stop ISPs prioritising network management traffic, or trapping spam, viruses, malware, and phishing sites.

ISPs also discriminate against some content, for example by not providing access to some of the more outer Usenet groups, which many see as a public good, and throttle each user's bandwidth at busy times, to ensure that every user gets some level of access, which is fair if not popular. Neither of these would be allowed under the most rigorous definition of net neutrality.

Full-blown net neutrality also throws up issues that it would take a savant to unpick. For example, some media providers use content distribution networks to cache their material close to the key ISPs, so that it need not travel over the core network every time an end-user requests it. If ISPs offer, for a fee, to cache the material on their own servers, rather than drawing it off a content delivery network, are they violating neutrality? After all, they're not charging for prioritised delivery so much as charging for storage and then delivering from a more reliable source. Another example - do download caps violate net neutrality by limiting the use of data-heavy web services such as video sites like YouTube? Some say yes.

Less rigorous approaches to net neutrality allow, for example, ISPs to give certain traffic, such as video or voice over IP, a higher quality of service - so long as the ISP doesn't charge for it. An even freer formulation allows ISPs to charge for that higher quality of access. Most formulations of net neutrality oppose ISPs charging content providers to distribute content to their customers. The argument that organisations such as the BBC with its iPlayer service are free-riders on the ISPs' investment and so should contribute to costs is trumped by the idea that the cost of delivering content is a small price to pay for the level playing field it creates for innovative services.

Market power

The idea of net neutrality was developed as a counter to the potential for market abuse represented by monopoly ISPs. If you can avoid ISPs, or anyone else in the delivery chain, gaining gatekeeper status then a more nuanced approach to net neutrality, which, for example, preserves the right to access any legal content but doesn't define how that content is delivered, could enable the emergence of innovative services.

Users could choose between ordinary and 'HD' Web access services that would stream Web video at the highest possible resolution. ISPs could try to charge content providers to deliver their content, and content producers could counter with restrictions or even charges for using their content - what would you pay for an internet connection that couldn't access Google's search engine or the BBC's iPlayer?

This kind of dynamic market can only prosper if end users can pick and choose between competing access methods. Perhaps efforts to legislate for net neutrality should be redirected to addressing the regulatory failures that allowed monopolies on access provision to develop in the first place.

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