Considerations about Net Neutrality (and on-going discussions…)

A few days ago, while being at the social dinner for the kick-off of a new project, we had a discussion about Net Neutrality. I realized my views were not the most popular among this technical audience. However I felt I made my point and it could be interesting to share it more widely.

Definition of Net neutrality

Net Neutrality is the idea that ISPs must treat all data on the Internet the same.

However the perception of people on Net Neutrality sums up in three fears:

  • All new startups should have the same chances as existing big actors.
  • We don’t want our provider to snif and filter our content.
  • We don’t want our provider to make us pay or limit us for a specific service.

One picture being worth a thousand words, this is what people fear:

Portuguese non-neutral ISP shows us what our Trumpian internet will look like

Activists against a suspected move from the US FCC convey ideas on a different angle. It also sums up in one expectation: regulate broadband Internet services as a public utility, similar to the way electricity, gas, and the water supplies are regulated. The Internet would be a Dumb Pipe.

Net neutrality in real life

Reality check: ISPs don’t operate the infrastructure of the Internet. The Internet infrastructure is made of multiple separate networks.

People are confused about the commercial structure of the Internet. This confusion is also conveyed by some structural differences depending on countries. The Internet is a network of interconnected computers. Who connects them? Some companies own the physical network (called “infrastructure” in this article). However in most countries local physical owners and network operators are the same (rither at a city or national level).

Interconnecting the Internet

The battle is on not on filtering the content but on financing the infrastructure.

When going worldwide one needs to interconnect networks: it is called “peering”. We often hear that operators usually don’t pay one another for peering, but are we talking about ISPs or infrastructure owners? There are numerous examples of Cogent being refused interconnection because they hosted Youtube ; would it be fair to make a free and unlimited connection with a service that account for 20% of the HTTP traffic? These discussions tend to have numerous extensions which complexity is fed by various adjustments from national regulators.

The Internet is the left-over of the network capacity.

The end-user thinks he pays for an Internet access. This is only partially true. The user pays to use a part of the infrastructure, and that’s only the part that was not reserved by other actors. This explains why the Internet network can deliver IPTV perfectly (on a “managed” i.e. reserved part of the bandwidth from your ISP) while your Internet connection struggles although they use the same infrastructure.

Reality check: the average person choose the provider mainly based on the price or a specific feature.

Since the price is an important factor when using your ISP, ISPs can’t afford to pay for the network. Look at what happens in France right now: there are 4 operators with low prices (less than 40 euros per month for quadruple play including unlimited and international calls and data). The deployment of the newest networks are not as fast as in other comparable countries.

The Internet is driven by commercial platforms and services

Google, Facebook and Amazon are the most prominent actors today (called Trinet) ; imagine what it would be if you were banned from these services?
Authors’s note: this is exactly how the Patent Umbrella works for AV1: if you attack one of the AOM companies (Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Qualcomm, etc.) you should stop using their products.

We went from the telephone network to an Internet infrastructure to an open Web to proprietary platforms. Google and Facebook represent 70% of the Web traffic. Facebook initiative to restrict the Web to its platform was blocked by the Indian regulator. There is a temptation to bundle with Telcos (e.g. Facebook Free Basics or Google Loon).

OTT services like Netflix or Youtube battle for Net Neutrality only because it allows them not to pay for the increase of the network traffic they provoke. OTT services, whether you use them or not, cost a lot to the Internet infrastructure.

Netflix also communicates a lot about its innovation and that’s why it is going to be cited a lot in this article. Netflix took the approach of putting computers in the ISP network to cache the content as a CDN would do. Small companies can’t compete with existing giants because the Internet is not a Dumb Pipe for end-users but a network managed by ISPs.

With Open Connect a part of the traffic of the ISP would be driven by Netflix to improve Netflix quality of service. How neutral can it be considered?

Data is the new gold

There is a battle of the data on the Internet, not only on the Web. By entering in the ISPs network Netflix also retrieves a lot of data from their users and distribution channels.

Until the legislation keeps up (like UE’s GDPR), platforms won’t take any responsibility (in the sense of Sartre). People tend to think that illegal or immortal activities thrive on networks providing more anonymity (like Tor) but most of these actions happen on today’s most popular services such as Facebook, text messages, and the Google search engine. It seems like letting these things happen and gathering the data has more value today than stopping them.

Conclusion

We think the current discussions focus too much on the emerged part of the iceberg. The real challenge for neutrality is to finance a public Internet infrastructure that could act as an infrastructure for everyone. The other challenge is to protect users, companies and States against some unfair or illegal use of data.

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