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A Packet of Lies

I’ve been reading the kerfuffle around Comcast’s blocking of various random network protocols with interest. Whilst I remain convinced that blanket “network neutrality” legislation remains just a form of digital gripe water (cures colic for cybernauts), there’s clearly a problem. As I previously alluded there’s a definite consumer protection issue over what you buy when it says ‘Internet’ on the tin.

So here’s tuppence worth of additional input. Maybe there is a hierarchy or taxonomy of “neutrality”, each area with its own specific concerns and issues, and potentially with interventionist or market remedies. Here goes:

  • “Read neutrality”. You can read the packet headers, but deep packet inspection is banned. The problem with this is that the user may desire some kinds of prioritisation (e.g. RTP/SIP) as the devices in the home are either incapable of co-operating or the user in incapable of configuring them. It’s going to be hard to separate “desirable” from “undesirable” routing and blocking when you opt in to the terms of service agreement. The postal system has had a form of this for a long time, but only for first-class type post; send something at the “printed material” rate and they’re allowed to check for cheating.

  • “Write neutrality”. You can look, but don’t touch. However, you can drop a packet based on what you see. You just can’t modify packets or create new (fake) ones that the user didn’t initiate. This seems a whole lot less contentious, since what Comcast are doing looks uncannily like a misrepresentation to the customer. However, nothing is ever so simple. I was recently downloading some stock photos whilst dialled up over my 3G phone. Some transparent proxy somewhere super-compresses all JPEG images, and they look crap. This wasn’t what I wanted on my laptop, but may indeed be a behaviour I wanted on my mobile phone (and indeed is quite normal—who wants to download a 100Kb image just for the browser to re-size it to 20 pixels wide).

  • “Route neutrality”. You have to treat all packets as equals. Nothing in the headers or payload can be used to determine priority. Unfortunately, this seems to be a fantasy land where no peering is ever done based on commercial considerations, no capacity is ever under- or over- provisioned, and no payments are possible from either content hosts or users at either end to re-allocate whatever scarcity might exist in their own favour. This is likely to prove impossible to define in any watertight manner, and could indeed fatally undermine the Internet’s interconnect system and drive a lot of traffic to IMS-ville.

  • “Receive neutrality”. You can’t stop the devices sold to the user from sending or receiving specific types of data. This would be a complement to “network” neutrality—“edge” neutrality. Sadly, it throws out a lot of infant limbs with the murky waste water. Would you really want the iPhone to be illegal? The French have this kind of law, and there’s a good reason why the iPhone launch there is delayed. It’s rather analogous to the US/Canadian prescription pharmacy tussle. The Canadians love to free-ride on American price discrimination profits, but don’t want to shoulder any of the fixed costs themselves. Similarly, we’d all like an open device, but only at the price point of a closed one (subsidised by various service revenues it ties you into).

If asked to draft rules for the above, I’d probably have to grant exceptions for the detection and mitigation of fraud or illegal activity. Inevitably, these lead to vague clauses about “the good running of the network” where the lawyers come in and try to weasel their way out. Somehow we manage to define homicide OK, so neutricide should be clear enough as long as you restrict yourself to addressing a specific consumer protection issue (rather than a generic worry). For example, I’m glad that there’s a UK registry of known network hosts for child porn, and blocks them. I don’t buy a “slippery slope to censorship” idea, as there’s a clear and present harm of images of children being raped accessible in every study and office.

The bottom line is that I can’t see how a “neutrality” law can be made a sure-fire consumer benefit. However, I do think that existing competition and consumer protection law is due a refresh to account for the unique market for connectivity and the transport of information goods. It’s impractical for a parcel carrier to open up the packets to be “non-neutral”, but a whole sub-industry for telecoms. Comcast customers have no means of knowing what they’re really buying when they sign the contract, and such information and power asymmetries scream “regulation”.

In the competitive UK market, behaviour like Comcast’s would just cause a whole bunch of churn, presuming the users notice or care about what’s going on. I can’t help wondering, though, how much they’ll have to spend on upgrading all the DPI equipment as they go to faster DOCSIS 3.0 (as well as keeping track of the protocol changes designed to evade such DPI blocking). Cheaper, more profitable and better PR to just buy more pipes, up the price a little, and offer capped plans for lower-usage users?

By Martin Geddes, Founder, Martin Geddes Consulting Ltd

He provides consulting, training and innovation services to telcos, equipment vendors, cloud services providers and industry bodies. For the latest fresh thinking on telecommunications, sign up for the free Geddes newsletter.

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