The old saying, “Viewpoint depends on where you stand,” has always applied quite literally to the concept of net neutrality.
On the east side of the Atlantic Ocean, lawmakers have declared equal access to the Internet a fundamental human right. On the west side, content providers argue that any attempt by lawmakers on the east side to police Internet content is tampering with a fundamental human right.
While this philosophical tug-of-war goes on across the Atlantic, the three lawmaking bodies of the European Union announced an agreement this morning from Brussels that would guarantee unobstructed, unfiltered and non-discriminating access to an “open Internet” for all citizens.
It accomplishes this, reads the fine print of the “trilogue” group’s announcements, by enabling service providers to essentially tunnel around the “open Internet” into what could very well be classified as a second Internet where all these fundamental human rights debates are set aside.
Separate But Equal
“In the open Internet, all traffic will be treated equally, subject to strict and clearly identified public-interest exceptions, such as network security or combating child pornography, and subject to efficient day-to-day network management by Internet service providers,” reads one of these announcements.
“In parallel, Internet access providers will still be able to offer specialised (sic) services of higher quality, such as Internet TV and new innovative applications, so long as these services are not supplied at the expense of the quality of the open Internet.”
The key phrase above is, “In parallel.” The stated position of the European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association (ETNO) as of November 2013 has been that excessive regulations placed on Internet communications unduly burden providers of applications that require high quality-of-service (QoS).
“Access regulation should focus on one level of the network only and price regulation should end where there are competing NGA [next-generation access] infrastructures,” stated the ETNO at the time.
The telcos were addressing an obvious problem: Business models all over the world are based on the availability of premium options. Perhaps the most often-cited future use case for premium QoS is “telemedicine” including the potential for a skilled surgeon in one part of the world to perform remote surgery on a critical patient in another part.
Certainly where a life may be at stake, maximum QoS would be critical. Would you want the packets that represent a life-saving surgical procedure to share the same routing queue as the latest episode premiere of “House of Cards?”
A Spanish member of the European Parliament, Pilar del Castillo Vera, first formally introduced the notion of specialized service into the discussion. In a 2014 post to her blog, MP Vera raised the curtain on a seemingly Orwellian way of portraying a two-tier Internet. It’s not two-tier, she said, if you only pay attention to one tier at a time and ignore the other.
“In order to foster a strong, truly competitive economy, businesses should be free to develop their own business models; providers of content and services should not be an exception,” Vera wrote. “Why should there be concern if we introduce strong safeguards that guarantee that everyone can have access to the open Internet without being blocked or throttled?”
That language was echoed in an FAQ published by the European Commission this morning, which responded to the notion that this agreement would create a two-tier Internet with a response that begins, “No.”
“It is important to have future proof rules which, while fully safeguarding the open Internet, allow market operators to provide services with specific quality requirements in order to provide them in safe manner,” wrote the EC.
“It is not a question of fast lanes and slow lanes — as paid prioritisation (sic) is not allowed, but of making sure that all needs are served, that all opportunities can be seized and that no one is forced to pay for a service that is not needed.”
The concept of specialized routing is not at all new. In fact, content delivery networks (CDN) from providers such as Akamai make high-speed video over Internet Protocol (IP) possible today. Netflix, in fact, was one of Akamai’s biggest customers up until 2013, when the content provider realized it could save money in the long-term by building its own CDN.
To borrow a phrase, Netflix developed a network “in parallel.”
Also back in 2013, Pete Mastin, the vice president of CDN provider Internap, penned an article that turned the whole idea of a free and unobstructed Internet on its ear.
First, Mastin brought cloud computing into the picture alongside content delivery, noting that cloud customers have different expectations for QoS because they are computing services.
Since cloud providers may be all over the world, he wrote, a user who is further away geographically from wherever a service happens to be hosted at a given moment in time, does not expect his computing experience to become slower.
Those expectations can be met, Mastin argued, by enabling CDNs to provide expedited availability in zones that are partitioned according to the needs of cloud service providers.
But this can only happen (and see if this sounds familiar) if CDNs were treated like a true utility, which includes the ability to route Internet service most effectively the same way an electricity provider routes service most effectively.
This morning’s trilogue agreement might appear to enable exactly what Mastin was calling for: permission for telcos to provide premium services, including traffic routing, on the guarantee that they don’t interfere with the services everyday people expect.
Of course, this is indeed how the Internet works now. High-QoS traffic does get routed through CDN utility services, and content providers do pay premiums for this. It’s hard to argue why this is not a legitimate business.
What net neutrality advocates are wary of is the possibility, or even the likelihood, that content and/or service providers will find some way to pass the cost of those premiums down to consumers.
It’s here that one notices, in the Brussels FAQ this morning, that “telemedicine” — that high-QoS service that MP Vera first brought up last year — is bundled together with “IPTV” and “high-definition videoconferencing” as services outside the “open Internet.” On a bandwidth basis, considering the fact that Netflix and YouTube combined constitute more than half of Internet traffic, it would mean that in the EU, more than half the Internet is not the open part.
If you don’t notice a difference, the EC appears to be arguing, then that’s as good as there not actually being a difference.
The final question is not whether we’ll notice in our Netflix. It’s whether we’ll find out what the difference is in the mail.