Net Neutrality Is Misguided, Because the Internet Doesn't Exist

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"Net Neutrality" is absolutely the most misused and abused term on the internet today. It makes the term “cloud” look positively well-defined, which is saying something.

Although there is a very formal definition, which I’ll get to in a moment, the term has become highly politicised to further a wide variety of agendas that meander a long, long way from where the term first originated. Today, you’ll find “Net Neutrality” defined as a way to guarantee free speech on the internet, or even as a synonym for the “principle of the Open Internet,” which is how the U.S. Federal Communications Commission defines it.

I can never decide if Net Neutrality is a topic on which everyone secretly harbours an opinion, or if it’s a topic people generally don’t feel qualified to discuss. It’s not a discussion I hear many people having, but when you do, most folks seem to agree that Net Neutrality must be a good, fair thing for the public at large.

In fact, some of the Net Neutrality discussion highlights fears that we have for the future of the internet. The notion of Net Neutrality is often used by regulators (and the governments that influence those regulators) to raise issues of civil liberties online. A more cynical form of that notion could be used divisively for the purpose of fear mongering.

Net Neutrality is often cited as somehow central to the Comcast and Netflix debate, and before that Verizon and Google. There is a concern that a network owner could unfairly use its market position to influence a customer’s access to the services provided on a remote network.

Thomas Wu is credited with first using the expression Network Neutrality in 2003, when he was talking of a design principle to “maximise the opportunity for public information sharing.”

Vint Cerf, Google’s chief internet evangelist and one of the internet’s key early figures, is eager to ensure that the topic is kept focused on being “anti-discriminatory” so that operators do not favour certain services over others.

But Bob Kahn, who co authored the TCP/ IP protocol with Cerf, is against the concept of having any mandates at all -- including one of neutrality. As he put it in a speech in 2007, “I am totally opposed to mandating that nothing interesting can happen inside the net.”

Some years ago I completed an ISOC NGL course looking at various aspects of internet governance; as part of this course there was a seminar and various discourses around Net Neutrality. I have spoken with Cerf on a number of occasions and I reached out to invite him to join a discussion two years ago as part of an ISOC NGL course I was taking.

His arguments are compelling, but while I deeply respect Cerf and am a huge fan of his multi-stakeholder approach to internet policy, on this one issue I strongly fall into Kahn’s camp.

A reader could argue that my perception is tainted by virtue of being deeply embedded in the industry that stands to gain the most from a lack of regulation around the Net Neutrality issue. I cannot tell if my view is formed simply because I am tainted by 18 years in the CDN and online content delivery world, or if that involvement gives me particular insight into the issue.

The effort to create a regulatory framework mandating “Net Neutrality” is, quite simply, misguided. For instance, the statement “President Obama declared himself fully committed to Net Neutrality” sounds as absurd to me as “Dom Robinson declared himself fully committed to unicorn neutrality.”

You see, as much as we all use the term “the internet,” no such thing exists.

Yep. I am going to commit that to paper again, for the record: there is no such thing as the internet, or even an internet.

There are millions of networks that each connect to a few others, and in such a way that you can quickly jump from one to another and back with messages, or even content. But that is not, in any way, shape, or form one network. At most, “the internet” can be considered to be a network of networks.

In fact, I would venture that the confusion stems in part from Wu’s 2003 announcement of his design principle. Had he spoken about “web neutrality,” it might have all tied in more closely to the sentiment of open publishing and the right to speak online on the web or consume content without discrimination. That web focus, I believe, is at the heart of Wu’s argument, and Cerf’s. Indeed, even to this day most people talk about the web as synonymous with the internet, but they are distinct concepts.

When Wu announced this design principle he glossed over the fact that the network of networks was actually formed not for sharing public information, but for sharing military applications, academic research, file transfers, and so on, and the potential revenues from those activities subsidised the existence of the telecoms networks over which they developed their protocols and applications.

These networks were by nature discriminatory and set up for specific tasks.

I personally recall using the Starlink IP network node at Sussex University between 1990 and 1993. The node had linked up all the major Astronomical Observatories since 1988. Access to that network was most certainly not in any way for any public information service. It was a secure and expensive IP network with highly controlled access to other IP networks. It was used to control telescopes, run CCDs, spin and mine remote tape stores, and similar activities. And there was NO web at the time.

So the notion of the internet as being limited to a public information service is a very myopic view, essentially seeing the internet as just the worldwide web, and the web itself as just an evolved version of a MiniTel or Prestel bulletin board service.

The fact is that I say what goes on within my home network, just so long as I don’t break any of the laws of my land. What network owners want to do on the network they own is surely their autonomous decision. That won’t ever change without a radical overhaul of civil liberties. No one can dictate if I can or cannot make myself available on Skype, or use UPNP on my LAN etc.

Similarly, your ISP has an acceptable user policy and a contract with you for what they offer in return for your fees.

If they fail to deliver on the contract, then that is between you and them. If you fail to understand that contract, they don’t have to adjust their service to meet your expectations, just so long as you are free to exit the contract if they are not delivering what they agree.

Obviously there are some areas with incumbent monopolies, where there may not be a choice to switch providers. That might venture into competition law issues that apply to all businesses, not just ISPs.

But what seems to happen in the Net Neutrality debate resembles a form of selective deafness from the proponents of “committing to Net Neutrality.” They seem to forget that there are already laws and regulations that prevent unfair practice, and instead they seek to re-create a new regulatory policy framework to regulate “the” internet as if it were a single thing, or even one set of agreed-upon things that could indeed be regulated.

Let’s think philosophically for a moment: why would folks want mandated Net Neutrality, even if it were technically possible to deliver?

Well, I would liken it to the world of pain that patents bring. Indulge me for a moment here. To “patent” literally means to “lay open,” and it came about as the idea that an inventor could publish his or her ideas openly, and still assert rights and leverage royalties with state backing. The idea behind this was to encourage innovation by ensuring that inventors did not bury their ideas for fear of losing them to anyone who could copy them.

Today, patents achieve exactly the opposite of those intentions -- they stifle innovation. Any attempt you might have to realise a good idea in today’s IT sector will generally stand the risk of being atomised by the lawyers of a large blue-chip companies with nothing else to do than simply own and restrict the rights -- by state-enforced monopoly control -- of the core patent. So-called patent trolling is all too familiar to those in all sectors.

In a similar way, the “open internet” folks are working up political lobbies to try to bring in mandated Net Neutrality legislation in the U.S. (and you can be sure the E.U. and others will follow soon after). The eventual outcome of this will potentially criminalise the very way the “the internet” has evolved.

It will stifle innovation and civil societies’ ability to deploy services properly in their own networks -- the one thing that advocates of Net Neutrality proclaim they are proponents of.

In my mind, there is mostly confusion because actually both sides are broadly in violent agreement, but a few parties have simply got the wrong end of the stick and become entrenched in their confused, and thus ill-defended, debating positions. Their intransigence is really at the core here.

To correct the mess, we have to start by educating a huge number of people with a few basic facts:

  • “The internet” is much more than Facebook and a web browser.
  • “The internet” doesn’t actually exist.

Without a doubt, Net Neutrality is something that is always going to rear its head. It is really a philosophical debate about a Platonic ideal of the “internet connection,” that we could all wax lyrical about forever, even though it doesn’t exist.

If anything, Net Neutrality is a bandwagon some folks have jumped on rather publically without really understanding what it means. Those who advocate mandating it through legislation are actually jeopardising the very values they hold most dear.

It is in practice a very convenient subject for politicians and newspaper editors to use to sound like a “technically competent authority” to “civil society” (the technical word for the general public), when in fact those of us in the real technical community see such pseudo-technical politicians beginning to look like unicorn farmers.

This article appears in the Winter 2014 issue of Streaming Media European Edition as "Net Neutrality? Fine. There Is No Internet Anyway."

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