Digital Britain and Hokey Tools

It’s helpful to see how other countries deal with the typically over-excited accusations of our colleagues regarding ISP management practices. Case in point is the Digital Britain Interim Report from the UK’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport and Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, which says (p. 27):

Internet Service Providers can take action to manage the flow of data – the traffic – on their networks to retain levels of service to users or for other reasons. The concept of so-called ‘net neutrality’, requires those managing a network to refrain from taking action to manage traffic on that network. It also prevents giving to the delivery of any one service preference over the delivery of others. Net neutrality is sometimes cited by various parties in defence of internet freedom, innovation and consumer choice. The debate over possible legislation in pursuit of this goal has been stronger in the US than in the UK. Ofcom has in the past acknowledged the claims in the debate but have also acknowledged that ISPs might in future wish to offer guaranteed service levels to content providers in exchange for increased fees. In turn this could lead to differentiation of offers and promote investment in higher-speed access networks. Net neutrality regulation might prevent this sort of innovation.

Ofcom has stated that provided consumers are properly informed, such new business models could be an important part of the investment case for Next Generation Access, provided consumers are properly informed.

On the same basis, the Government has yet to see a case for legislation in favour of net neutrality. In consequence, unless Ofcom find network operators or ISPs to have Significant Market Power and justify intervention on competition grounds, traffic management will not be prevented.

(Ofcom is the UK’s FCC). Net neutrality is, in essence, a movement driven by fears of hypothetical harm that might be visited upon the Internet given a highly unlikely set of circumstances. Given the fact that 1.4 billion people use the Internet every day, and the actual instances of harmful discrimination by ISPs can be counted on one hand (and pales in comparison to harm caused by malicious software and deliberate bandwidth hogging in any case,) Ofcom’s stance is the only one that makes any sense: keep an eye on things, and don’t act without provocation. This position would have kept us out of Iraq, BTW.

Yet we have lawmakers in the US drafting bills full of nebulous language and undefined terms aimed at stemming this invisible menace.

Are Americans that much less educated than Brits, or are we just stupid? In fact, we have a net neutrality movement in the US simply because we have some well-funded interests manipulating a gullible public and a system of government that responds to emotion.

A good example of these forces at work is the freshly released suite of network test tools on some of Google’s servers. Measurement Lab checks how quickly interested users can reach Google’s complex in Mountain View, breaking down the process into hops. As far as I can tell, this is essentially a dolled-up version of the Unix “traceroute” which speculates about link congestion and takes a very long time to run.

The speed, latency, and consistency of access to Google is certainly an important part of the Internet experience, but it’s hardly definitive regarding who’s doing what to whom. But the tech press loves this sort of thing because it’s just mysterious enough in its operation to invite speculation and sweeping enough in its conclusions to get users excited. It’s early days for Measurement Lab, but I don’t have high expectations for its validity.

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