A Critique Against Net Neutrality

Before I begin, I should note I am not an American, nor have I particularly noticed any form of throttling as a result of lack of Net Neutrality (often noted here as N/N – set as a fraction to supply the idea of balance). I have, experienced site blocking, particularly in the past two years (by either my internet service provider – ISP – or the parent company).

I would be remiss to mention as well, neither Title I nor Title II of the Communications Act is significantly better than the other for American ISP’s to be regulated under. My viewpoint is only that there are a lot of people spreading fear, uncertainty & doubt over this while forgetting the history of the internet (including the decades without N/N), for example. My hope is to take a critical look at the claims for N/N, and point out why the sky is not falling since the removal of Title II occourred.

A Little Background

I am not going to rehash at length the history of the rise and fall of N/N, however there are articles and videos that can accomplish this, to take with care as there were some mis-steps in the content, with one that stood out for me I will note later.

My Coles Notes

Net Neutrality was only in effect for two years of internet’s 30+ year lifespan (even longer when you consider the ARPANET predecessor as one and the same). N/N was only deemed a need for legislation in USA due to limited infrastructure in the wake of popularity of streaming content…a problem building up over some years. Lack of prioritization with a finite bandwidth meant services can very well fight to continue a solid connection. It could mean (and yes, be it a rare occourrence) several Netflix streamed sessions choke out the quality of an emergency VOIP call. During the two years N/N was king, local infrastructure rarely improved (although a different story can be said of the internet backbone), due to so much red tape ISP’s had to cut through to improve their service. The saving grace to how available bandwidth has improved over time is the efficiency of newer video codec technology (providing HD quality at barely 100’s of kbps “cost”).

The Impact Without

Yes, it is too soon to say if ISP’s will play the same tricks as some did two or three years ago. They will probably try. Meanwhile in Canada a major ISP will give you fast, unlimited internet but have draconian rules that will never allow to to take advantage of that fast pipe without kicking you out inside a month. That is not even a N/N issue, rather one of competition.

A concern raised is that lack of N/N will limit innovation by ISP’s throttling up-and-coming services (lest the consumer pays for the added benefit). This falls under the “10 cents per google search” scam territory rather quickly. Another great example of this is in the Daily Dot article above which includes a Twitter image of a European mobile plan describing the extra packages that the user can pay upfront for to not impact their mobile data quota – all mis-referenced as a tiered home internet (as in pay this much monthly to get access to this). Oops.

Anyway, the only services truly concerned about throttled up-and-comers are by-design bandwidth hogs. That is, the next Netflix or YouTube (and by the looks of YouTube’s demonetization scheme, we are due for a new one). Even then, Canada’s prominent solutions for Netflix thus far are Crave TV (Bell) and Shomi (Rogers), each run by ISP’s (who also act as cable companies). This situation means that Bell will not spite it’s face by throttling Crave (though it may throttle Shomi until Rogers cries foul to the CRTC, or Rogers repeats the favour by throttling Bell’s services).

Even still, though many are looking beyond YouTube for member-submitted content, the asks will not make a good business case for a small start-up, unless the platform is absorbed by a larger company soon after conception. My prediction is that if Facebook or Amazon (with a rare shout-out to Microsoft as being the agent) does not create a member-submitted video platform (in the case with Facebook, not one already heavily tied with their flagship product), one of them will buy someone’s work instead.

Yet we cannot forget emerging platforms that have the potential for eating up a lot of bandwidth. VR/AR or mixed reality has this potential, and it looks like the big players have already taken their spot (it has been predicted months ago someone new will enter the scene and make significant market share – lack of N/N will hurt them if ISP’s with this new-found freedom advance faster than them). That may be the scariest thing about losing N/N, in that emerging (bandwidth-hungry) platforms will forever be run by Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google/Alphabet and Microsoft. A new twist on something that already exists need not worry too much (will be supported/bought by a larger fish) nor would a data-friendly service (an ISP would waste more money than receive trying to profit off of it).

The concern that hits home for me is how this will affect the FOSS community. Free software is made up of sharing large amounts of code (such as through GitHub), and not only can git be something to throttle down the road, it fits the case for being bandwidth-hungry enough to (almost) support a sub-plan (assuming the overall popularity of source code justifies charging users for such and have that return on investment).

Privacy Concerns Over Either Approach

I am curious how well informed those who speak out in favour of N/N is of the internet. Anyone who has ever used a packet sniffer knows that the core information an ISP needs to know about a piece of network traffic is in the packet header, not the content. Keep in mind every website you go to that has “https” at the start of the web address instead of “http” (or depending on your browser, no protocol prefix listed at all), that content is encrypted (takes serious time to break – imagine the cell phones from recent crimes in possession by the authorities yet are still inaccessible) and given the flow of the pipes it makes no sense to try to break into one (that is, without taking the serious effort in breaking into a cluster to grab the entire contents).

To use a postal service example already provided in one of the references (mailman opening mail, reading the contents to justify how fast the letter mail gets to the destination), the mailman does not have to open the envelope at all. The to and from address labels are already on the envelope face (with a few other details) giving clues as to how to prioritize its delivery.

Even so, if your ISP had unabashed access to the contents of your network traffic (encrypted or not), how is that any more an infringement on rights when N/N laws specifically allowed government to do the same to ensure that the law was being enforced? This is not a tinfoil hat plot, nor avoiding the possibility that government would not inspect traffic without the law present to do so. But to give a fully legal excuse?

I may be missing out on some crucial details, but I just find some arguments toward N/N weird.

Meanwhile, Canada’s ISP’s (led by Bell) are trying to implement a China approach-level blocking here. Not to be confused with N/N which thus far has only prioritized traffic by throttling it, this (as it begins as) anti-piracy initiative will see large parts of the web (and the services – like VPN’s – that would have make it available) disappear. I have experienced VPN issues for about two years now with my ISP, but without going on too much of a tangent, this can all soon be common-practice.

Is There A Third Option?

Americans don’t need to fight for N/N back. They need to fight for competition in the classical definition sense (not the newly legislated definition): an alternative provider…or two…at least…in their area. The alternatives (or some) can even be resellers – nothing wrong with an ISP reseller. But real competition, choice, and the clout to not put up with throttling, can only be done by making it easier to run copper/fibre for alternatives…within reason (over-crowded service poles help no-one at the same time and where resellers alleviate this problem). So I guess I am talking a little more deregulation.

Where to Go From Here

The 2015 and 2017 N/N votes were divided by party lines. I don’t imagine it will be long before democrats regain power and vote once again. By then, we may see an abuse of bandwidth usage, depending if the Electronic Frontier Foundation or Free Software Foundation (both good places to send donations by-the-way – note I am involved in neither of them – there are just worse entities to support in all this) are unable to provide a solid challenge to N/N in the courts. In the mean time, it’s all a wait and see, and recognize that unlike other political aspects in the USA these days, the sky is not falling.

A Critique Against Net Neutrality

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