Monday, 16 August 2010

Google and Verizon: The end of net neutrality?

If you look at any of what I lovingly refer to as the geek press, (Ars Technica, Wired etc.), you'll see a lot of chatter involving Google, the American telco Verizon and the words 'net neutrality'.

You might have heard the term before, but if you haven't, it's a fairly simple concept.

The internet was designed to accommodate the 'end-to-end' principle, which basically states that control of the internet is in the hands of the users and that all traffic on the internet is treated equally. Upholding this rule has become known as 'net neutrality', and it has been one of the guiding principles of the internet for as long as it has existed.

This principle was considered acceptable throughout the early days of the internet, when the traffic it carried was of a fairly low volume and websites were relatively simple affairs. However, as the internet became a major contributor to both economic growth and content-holder revenue, certain parties, ISPs in particular, began to resent the concept of net neutrality as a self-imposed rule that diminished their potential to generate money.

For the past decade, a storm has been fomenting as ISPs jealously watch developers and content holders/collators such as Youtube, Facebook, and Skype make millions from operations which require internet access in order to be viable.

What many ISPs would like to do is bring an end to net neutrality, and wring more money out of users and content managers alike. The rough idea would be similar to a paid TV service.

Think of Sky. You can pay for a basic Sky package which gets you the standard channels, but if you want to watch movies or sports, you pay a premium.

Similarly, you could reasonably expect ISPs to charge extra for music streaming (Spotify), VoIP (Skype) and other things such as downloading large files, or online gaming.

This proposal is coming to a head. In 2007, Americas largest ISP, Comcast blocked the BitTorrent file transfer protocol. This was challenged by the Federal Communications Commission, with the then FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin saying '...the order was meant to set a precedent that Internet providers, and indeed all communications companies, could not prevent customers from using their networks the way they see fit unless there is a good reason.'

Unfortunately, this ruling was challenged and overturned in court with the judge finding that the FCC had no legal basis on which to punish ISPs for trying to limit network neutrality. As a result, the FCC has found itself unable to properly mediate in matters of net neutrality and large corporations have simply began devising their own rules. The FCC could form a sound legal basis for its authority, but it faces a lot of pressure from ISPs and wealthy lobbying groups to allow telcos to act unimpeded.

The latest event in this saga is last weeks announcement of a 'traffic prioritisation agreement' between Google and another of the US' largest ISPs, Verizon. On the surface, the proprsed agreement doesn't seem like a piece of pure evil. However, whilst conceding that net neutrality principles should remain in place for wired networks, excluded from these proposals are 'differentiated or additional services'. What exactly 'differentiated or additional services' means, I don't know and your guess is as good as mine, but from the vague detail given, it could refer to anything that that an ISP wants. Also, the proposal specifically excludes wireless services, and given that more commentators consider wireless internet service to become commonplace in future, it doesn't paint a pretty picture.

Most disturbing of all, Google and Verizon have called for advisory groups led by telcos to write the rules of the internet in the future. When it comes down to matters of consumer protection and internet traffic management, the FCC would be subject to approval from the very companies it is meant to oversee.

It's easy to see why this is attractive to companies. ISPs would be able to charge users and content providers with access to internet 'fast lanes' and a company as large as Google could easily pay millions to ensure their content is delivered faster. Using Google to carry out a web search would deliver fast results, but if you wanted to use the less well funded, and sometimes better, Metacrawler, you would have to wait. And if you found out that your ISP was blocking BitTorrent, you could write a letter of complaint to the FCC or Ofcom, but they would be powerless to act.

Personally, it sickens me. And for a variety of reasons.

First of all, that Google have, if not reversed, then retraced their steps in relation to net neutrality is saddening. Oh yeah, Google, the 'nice guys' of the internet. We're cool! Look at our headquarters! We didn't change our minds on net neutrality because it allows us to prioritise our content over others! We did it 'in the spirit of compromise'! We were just trying to be fair!

Net neutrality is one of the last remaining pillars of an open internet, and it is crumbling.

Whilst originally intended to be a forum for sharing ideas and enhancing education, it wasn't long before people realised the internet was equally suited providing people with far more pornography than they would ever need and pictures of cats with cheezburgers.

Then the commercial possibilities were exploited and the internet became another route through which advertisers could force their shite down our throats, helped along by developments like Google Ads.

And now we get to the stage where ISPs, the middlemen of the internet, envious of the profits of others, intend to remove the enduring character of the web in order to pursue greater profits for their shareholders, and also eviscerate the power of those government agencies that would have oversight.

The ISPs, of course, are being disingenuous in regards to their desire to end net neutrality. If you ask them, they will say it is down to networks being congested and that operating a multi-tiered service will allow people who only need to browse the web slower, smaller bandwidth access with heavy users able to pay a premium for better, wider access. Of course, that's exactly how it works now only without a paid premium, with all users of the internet using the same tier and, you know what, it works pretty well.

We have bandwidth throttling in the UK, as well as download caps, and while I like neither, at least there is a technical reason for their existence that doesn't involve fucking the customer over for more money.

As simple analogy that I have read somewhere(?) that disproves the suggestion that the ISPs are doing this in the interests of their customers.

If you have a stretch of road that is constantly getting jammed with cars, you widen the lanes for everyone. You don't start letting people pay to drive over the top of everyone else.

Either way, I believe it is only a matter of time before we see the end of net neutrality and a paid-for, tiered-service will become standard.

Why?

Because this battle is being fought in America. Aside from Liberal or Conservative, the overriding ideology is that of corporatism. Big business holds all the cards and it calls all the shots. Politicians do not have the power or the bank balance needed to resist companies the size of Google or Verizon. Against this backdrop of economic crisis, ISPs have an avenue through which to pursue profits and that magic word 'growth'. The US government will not be able to deflect the opportunity for telecommunications growth for much longer, and capitalism abhors a financially exploitable vacuum.

And when it happens in the US, there will be no logical reason ISPs in the UK won't follow suit.

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