10 March 2009

The Net Neutrality Quandary

Net Neutrality is an issue on which I'm completely torn. Take, for example, the UK government's proposed amendments to the EU Telecoms Package[1]. The original proposed wording was:

The national regulatory authorities shall promote the interests of the citizens of the European Union by inter alia: applying the principle that end-users should be able to access and distribute any lawful content and use any lawful applications and/or services of their choice

The UK government proposal would amend that to:

...by inter alia: applying the principle that there should be transparency of conditions under which services are provided, including information on the conditions of access to and/or use of applications and services, and of any traffic management policies

My gut reaction is to favour the original wording; it is the completely open nature of the internet which allows me to rant on here and know it will be accessible to anybody with an internet connection. On the other hand, I look at the proposed amendment and that seems reasonable too. If there is a competitive market and one supplier wants to offer a service on the basis that it provides access to a limited number of websites and there are customers who are happy with that, what right have I got to tell them that they can't do business on that basis? In any other market, that would be a clear restriction of free trade, something I'm instinctively opposed to. In the main, it wouldn't seem to make much sense for an ISP to operate on that basis anyway. By blocking access to a range of sites, they would be offering a poorer product to the customer, so they would have to find some way of making it correspondingly cheaper.

Having reflected on the issue for a while, I think that, rather than mandate net neutrality, freedom of choice and flexibility would be better served by using common carrier type protection for those ISPs which act as "dumb pipes." In much the same way that, if Royal Mail handles a parcel containing something illegal, it isn't held liable, but someone knowingly bringing the same item through customs is, those ISPs which act as non-discriminatory conduits for information should be guaranteed that they won't be held liable for material transmitted by their customers, but those ISPs which offer a restricted service should be treated as broadcasters and be held responsible for the information they transmit. That would provide a strong incentive for ISPs to maintain neutrality without legally restricting their business model. As an aside, I acknowledge that Royal Mail's protection from liability isn't due to common carrier protection, but the principle is similar enough for the purposes of this comparison.



AntiCitizenOne said...

Maybe they should brand "The Internet" and "Internet access" and not allow inferior access schemes to be described as internet.

Vindico said...

I am slightly caught up in this debate as i work in the industry. Basically the only differentiation which ought to be allowed is the quality of service. I.e. providing better QoS for video traffic vs web traffic.

Now that seems fair and reasonable. Where it gets messy is with regard to restricting access to content.

Now I don't believe many ISPs would decide to cut off access to Yahoo, or ban wikipedia, for example, and so there should be plenty of choice between ISPs.

ISPs seem deluded that they add some kind of mythical value to the value chain. In fact their value is small, and they should stick to being pipes. AOL tried to wrap content and access in the good old days but people chose to get their pipe elsewhere and just use the WWW for their content. No walled gardens. ISPs calling for 'liberalisation' seem really to be rent seeking IMHO.

So when it comes to content access i oppose net neutrality, but so long as their is open competition among ISPs, and the infrastructure owner (which is an uncompetitive market) cannot deny neutrality, then what is the fuss. I'll just pick the ISP which gives me open access.

Paul Lockett said...

AC1, I could see some value in that. It would certainly aid transparency by making it crystal clear who is offering open access

Vindico, I tend to agree with your analysis. ISPs in the US did seem to have a belief that they could make money by charging Google for access to their customers, which may have worked to some extent there with the monopoly markets they have in some areas, but the reality is the other way around; content providers have started to charge ISPs for the right to carry their material, such as ESPN. I don't view that kind of differentiation, where the supplier actually wants to restrict access, as being as much of a problem.

In the end, the UK, with an open access infrastructure, cable operators in many areas and fairly reasonable mobile broadband, has enough competition to make compulsory net neutrality seem like overkill. Transparency about the service offered and continued open access at the BT last mile level would seem to be sufficient.