The network neutrality debate goes on in Europe, with the latest salvo entitled the 'Plum Report'. Commissioned by the BBC and its friends it champions, surprise, surprise, the open Internet. By Ian Scales.
Internet neutrality arguments have a slightly different flavour in the UK where ISPs line-up on the anti-neutrality side with broadcasters on the other. In particular the BBC, the UK's public broadcaster, has been cast as the European 'Google', choking ISP networks with video content. It's therefore being pressured to pay up to fund the build-out of more capacity.
So, in response to the rather misfired AT Kearney report (see - When networks go bad (or not)) which prosecuted the case against neutrality and was commissioned by the big European telcos, the BBC, Blinkbox, Channel 4, Skype, and Yahoo, have fired back with a report they commissioned from Plum Consulting to put the opposite case. The result is an extensive report - download here.
This is no mere defensive rebuttal of anti-neutrality. Where the AT Kearney report maintained that the current economics of the Internet were unsustainable and that a new 'settlement' was needed, Plum builds the case that far from needing a complete rethink, an open Internet is actually essential if the innovation, economic and social benefits it has fostered are to continue.
It takes issue with every assertion made by AT Kearney and concludes that neutrality is so economically and socially desirable that it cannot not be guaranteed by vigorous competition (a popular position amongst Europeans who support neutrality but are against stifling regulation) but must be underpinned by law, otherwise there is a risk that the Internet's 20 year run will end we won't be able to get it back.
From a highly partial observer's point of view (mine) the Plum report does a good job of marshaling the main arguments for neutrality (and there ARE a lot of them). So many in fact that sometimes the pro neutrality arguments can tend to fall over each other.
One way we haven't done ourselves any favours is through the shorthand definition often used to define what neutrality is - that it's the principle of 'treating all traffic the same without regard to type, destination, or source." This has become a hostage to fortune.
Opponents are apt to point out that 'neutrality' as defined is an idealised state of affairs that has never existed, therefore the whole notion of neutrality is flawed since neutrality doesn't exist (end of argument).
Second, it's pointed out that operators need to manage their networks for everyone - that might mean throttling applications that hog bandwidth (for instance) from time to time. So again, the conclusion is that neutrality as defined isn't desirable.
Third, that users should be able to pay more for assured or high QoS delivery if their application demands it - a strict interpretation of the old 'treating all traffic the same' appears to rule out this sort of service.
Although there might be some pro-neutrality fundamentalists who want to stick to the old definition, the reality is that no serious net neutrality policy attempts a blanket ban on 'traffic type' discrimination. It's invariably about business behaviour, not network protocols.
All three of the current neutrality regimes (Chile, The Netherlands and the US) are concerned with preventing access networks being used as choke points to extort revenue out of other players in the ecosystem by blocking or slowing lawful traffic and therefore destroying the openness of the Internet. That's the quality that brings all the benefits: no permission needed to deploy; complete market discoverability; low barriers to entry and no network-level transaction costs; and of course free public access to - and ability to publish - information.
So as long as there is no business discrimination going on; and as long as users actually want and need it, network management and service tiers shouldn't be ruled out by any sensible neutrality regime. As long as it's not used as a tool to either extort money out of, or favour, particular upstream providers (or inhibit free experession).
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