This week yours truly has been thinking about net neutrality prompted by a call for regulation in one of the national newspapers (my response here). For those not familiar with the term, net neutrality is one of those annoyingly slippery concepts that defy easy classification. Traditionally, the term has been used to define a principle of non-discrimination of Internet content by Internet service providers, but I have seen it used in a broader fashion to include other concepts such as blocking, censorship and connectivity. In short, net neutrality could be loosely defined as a principle that advocates that all Internet content is created equal. For anyone interested in a much more detailed look at net neutrality, you should read Chris Marsden’s excellent book on the subject.
The background to the net neutrality debate can be found, as it is the norm in many issues regarding Internet regulation, with the U.S. telecoms scene. The United States has an interesting broadband market, dominated in large part by a duopoly of cable and phone providers. Because of its size, some regions are serviced only by a single provider, which tends to create de facto local monopolies. As some have pointed out, this creates a very uncompetitive market where broadband is more expensive and slower to that found in other developed countries. But not only is the American broadband service under-par, the existence of regional monopolies means that ISPs could potentially get away with anti-competitive practices by slowing down competing services. Imagine that you are a telephone company that provides also broadband, and you see that a lot of your customers are using Skype for long-distance communications. Nothing would stop you from slowing down VoIP to protect your commercial interests, and in some regions, it would not even be feasible for you to change providers. This mental image is precisely at the heart of the net neutrality debate. However, this is a picture that does not translate well elsewhere, hence the net neutrality debate has been mainly an American-centric issue.
Internationally, the subject is less clear-cut. The European telecoms scene is considerably more open and competitive in many of the larger markets, so potential anti-competitive practices could be punished by users. Similarly, with faster download speeds on average, the creation of a tiered Internet where some content gets priority is simply a matter of fast versus faster speeds. There are also some vastly different realities across Europe, from transaction costs to the ownership of the backbone infrastructure, this makes it more difficult to regulate, but also makes it more difficult to define precisely what is meant by net neutrality in the local context. The European Commission therefore has been consistently reluctant to deal with the subject in a substantial manner.
Nonetheless, net neutrality IS an important debate in the telecoms arena, but I fear that most of it is (mis)informed outside of the United States by the peculiarities of the American issues. Time and time again I have read articles calling for net neutrality using American arguments, when those do not apply to the realities of the country where the person is calling for action. Similarly, the terms used to define the problem will tell you everything you need to know to understand what really is at stake. For the proponents of net neutrality principles, the issue is one mainly about content discrimination. For the opponents of net neutrality, the issue is one of quality of service to the consumer. The problem is that both are right in their own way. Some ISPs are guilty of discriminating Internet traffic, while carriers are correct that they are seeing the pipelines clogged up by P2P and streaming services, actions that could negatively affect speeds to other users.
One of the biggest frustrations that I get from the net neutrality debate is that it is mainly a red herring, we have largely moved beyond the mere act of traffic discrimination and into more nuanced territory. In the UK I was used to having P2P traffic throttled during peak times, it was clear that if I wanted to download any torrents, it would have to be done overnight. Why was this? So that the vast majority of people could be able to use the BBC’s iPlayer. Blocking and downstream censorship of content has become a more vital subject in my humble opinion. It also seems to me that filter bubbles are a more pervasive and worrying trend than whatever sort of traffic shaping we may get at the intermediary exchanges.
But more importantly from an international perspective, at the moment net neutrality is a first-world problem. Traffic shaping and throttling is of less concern if more than half of your population is not online at all, and where broadband speeds are not up to scratch. This may sound defeatist, but it is a reality for large numbers of people in the world. Let’s first try to tackle the digital divide (which after all these years, still exists), and then let’s worry about equal access to content.
As mentioned already, to me Internet censorship is a more important fight than net neutrality in developing countries. Take a look at what is taking place right now in Argentina, where a judicial order against the whistle-blowing site LeakyMails has resulted in blocking up to a million blogs hosted by Google. This is our reality, not potential future problems with traffic shaping.