Protecting network neutrality: both important and hard

  2014-08-19

Protecting network neutrality: both important and hard

  06:14, by Hagai Bar-El   , 2362 words
Categories: Security Policies

The importance of net neutrality

A lot has been written about the importance of net neutrality to society and to economy, and I do not wish to unnecessarily repeat those messages. I will just raise a few points as food for thought for newcomers.

  • The Internet is an open ecosystem that does not favor anyone over the other. As such, it fuels the open economy that we all enjoy. A company with merit can be launched today by two people in a garage, and take over Facebook tomorrow. If Netflix, for example, can use its cash "to buy the Internet" away from a young promising competitor but who is not as funded, are we as society better off?
  • Net neutrality violations are a slippery slope. If ISPs can downgrade the service to parts of the Internet at their own discretion, what would it do to free speech tomorrow?
  • If ISPs can sell premium connectivity to certain players, it will imply that those ISPs will not invest in improving the Internet speed and stability for all communication, but only for those connections that pay extra; that is simple economics.

Network neutrality is the notion of having service providers provide connectivity service with impartiality and transparency. The openness of the Internet, on which a lot of its value is reliant, is intrinsically based on net neutrality.

Why is the legal enforcement of net neutrality so challenging?

It did not take us much to be able to define net neutrality in the technical and service domains, but there still are some loose ends that prevent this definition from being applicable as a normative regulation; that is, other than lobbies and politics. I wrote that the service provider, to exercise network neutrality, has to avoid exploiting any data for providing its service, other than the data specified by the networking protocol. However, this is not realistically achievable to the fullest extent. The ISP has to carry out some business-oriented packet shaping to prevent one user from absorbing all bandwidth, not leaving anything for other users. Obviously, there is some business logic involved in preference of packets which is acceptable. If you pay for a certain bandwidth, some network neutrality is violated by merely enforcing this deal. So where does the line cross? How is restricting a user to only use the bandwidth he pays for is okay, while preferring traffic based on payment by service providers is not?

Usually, when we encounter such situations in which we cannot make up sustainable rules, one approach is to revert to demanding transparency. The ISP can do whatever it wishes, but it must openly disclose its operations and thus let economy control what is acceptable by the public and what is not, and penalize the ISPs that are below the norm. This could work. We could require that any ISP can do whatever it wishes with its traffic: prioritize, block sites at its own will, etc., just as long as it openly publishes its practices to the users, who may elect to take their business elsewhere. The reason this approach is not favorable is that network neutrality has too much significance to economy and to democracy to have it left to user preferences. There are too many potential "market failures" here: users may not understand the trade-offs well enough, the ISPs may form cartels that allow them all to offer the same terms of service in this respect; or in some cases there is just not enough choice between ISPs in the first place. Transparency is a good requirement; but it is not enough.

We need to protect network neutrality by law. Even if we cannot get it a hundred percent right at first, we need to pose a firm start.

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1 comment

Comment from: Alyse [Visitor]

Excellent explanation. Started out thinking there was no way this was going to make sense then it all came together

2016-07-14 @ 04:57


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