A post on Lirneasia prompted some thought on the linkages between Net Neutrality and peacebuilding, especially the use of the web and Internet for conflict transformation. Lirneasia’s post deals with Obama’s and McCain’s stance on the issue of Net Neutrality, with Chanuka making the point that while theoretically desirable, Net Neutrality has its own significant costs.
A complementary article posted earlier on Lirneasia’s site itself points to an approach by Vint Cerf that provides useful food for thought on the Net Neutrality debate. Cerf’s agrees that broadband networks need to be managed, but he differs with Chanuka (and perhaps Lirneasia) on how. As opposed to usage based billing, Cerf proposes a transmission rate cap where users can “purchase access to the Internet at a given minimum data rate and be free to transfer data at at least up to that rate in any way they wish.” (Cerf’s original post on Google which fleshes this idea out can be read here).
My concern here is with the appropriation of the Net Neutrality debate by ISPs – both State and Private – under repressive regimes to covertly clamp down on communications used by human rights defenders and peace activists.
For example, I have been reliably told, though not verified, that a well-known ISP in Sri Lanka (not SLT) is blocking P2P traffic, including Skype. This creates significant problems for some HR org’s and activists on it who use Skype to communicate and collaborate securely. Ironically, some actually switched over to this ISP from SLT because they thought it afforded greater security and Quality of Service. EFF’s Switzerland tool, if Lirneasia or any other organisation ever get around to using it in SL, may offer some insight in this regard.
The point is quite simply this – net neutrality is not just about the minimum or maximum transmission rates, but about the way IP packets on a broadband pipe are managed. If ISPs, under their own misguided policies or those covertly imposed by a repressive regime begin to selectively prioritise and monitor traffic on their networks, it forces those who use the Internet for highly sensitive communications and advocacy to re-think the tools and services they access, and how. And sometimes, there’s no other option for tools used by HR defenders – as in the case of Skype. Despite recent concerns over privacy, there is no other encrypted, free and widely used VOIP tool. And once you start going down this path, it soon becomes clear that traffic discrimination can selectively target other tools, web services and platforms used by HR defenders against a regime to capture, generate, disseminate and archive inconvenient truths – such as human rights abuses. This includes video streaming sites like YouTube.
A final word on economics. As Ars Technica notes,
As unattended apps like P2P and network backup utilities tie up a portion of bandwidth for ever longer periods of time, the old solutions aren’t working as well and congestion is one result. Cerf’s idea would take us back to the old “circuit-switched” days in the sense that each Internet user would instead get a guaranteed line with a minimum guaranteed rate at all times. This would answer consumer complaints about “not getting what I paid for,” but would cost ISPs more cash.
Emphasis mine. Lirneasia’s research in Sri Lanka suggest deplorable QoS across all “broadband” ISPs. Not a single ISP in Sri Lanka guarantees minimum transmission speeds and often advertise speeds that paying customers simply don’t get, or even come close to. Convincing them to upgrade their networks to go down the path Cerf suggest may be impossible, given how enticing the economics of a metered data transmission model looks and sounds, on paper.
The problem of course is that this doesn’t address the problem of pissant data rates for all. A pay-for-megabyte model will see that though the heaviest users pay up (corporate consumers) and the economic disincentive for individuals to become high volume users will simply not be enough to improve transmission speeds (particularly if, as I suspect, our ISPs will do little or nothing to improve network capacity). The net result will quite simply be more or less the same old, glacial data transfer rates which will anger even more those who can are willing to pay more (like myself) for better connectivity.
There’s one ISP in the UK offering something I’ve not seen anywhere else – a meaningful IP traffic prioritisation / management plan. It’s from Plusnet. Check it out here. Their explanation uses the same metaphor as Chanuka uses in his Lirneasia post,
Think of it this way, the broadband network is like a motorway. When the traffic is light, all vehicles can move at the national speed-limit. Some lanes of the motorway have been reserved for important traffic, such as buses or emergency vehicles. During rush hour, most vehicles are forced to slow down. However, the traffic on the reserved lanes can continue to travel at their full speed.
Google itself has promised a tool that helps end-users / consumers to see how ISPs manage traffic. No date for the release of the tool, but a more user friendly Switzerland or Google’s tool would be a huge asset for those of us who use the Internet for peacebuilding and ODR, if only to see which ISP we should avoid.
Update – 5 September 2008
Comcast, the cable operator and ISP in the US at the centre of the Net Neutrality debate, has sued the FCC over a decision it made on Comcast’s network management techniques. Ars Technica has the story here.