Saturday, November 13, 2010

Further thoughts on net neutrality summit

Politicians like simple stories and simple solutions even when the issues are complex as with net neutrality.  I get it.  So they get told simple stories by lobbyists to get them to behave in a way that is beneficial to certain commercial interests. I get that. Complaints that the debates on net neutrality are dominated by extremes are legitimate.  But the logical leap then to the argument that net neutrality purists should be dismissed and commercial interests prevail - i.e. saying one end of the spectrum is right and the other wrong - is a leap too far.

Jean-Jacques Sahels of Skype and La Quadrature du net's Jérémie Zimmermann, for example, were very badly treated by the first afternoon session chair, Malcolm Harbour, who insisted in intervening in their contributions to the debate and disagreeing with them. At the same time Mr Harbour both explicitly and implicitly praised the contributions of those selling the anti net neutrality message. Mr Harbour's duty as an MEP is to look to the public interest and undermining those who are attempting to speaking up for the public interest should not be part of his remit.

Cisco and similar tech companies want to sell intelligent network kit.That's their business.  The more intelligent the kit the better the margins. Net neutrality doesn't aid their bottom line.  They have a right to argue for the need for "innovation at the core of the network" but it doesn't negate the fact that it is the innovation at the edges of the network that has transformed the world.

Telcos sell access to networks.  Controlling how people behave on those networks is in their interests particularly when they can charge more to provide access to the faster, broader, low latency services.  Net neutrality doesn't serve that end.  Of course if they are seen to be able to control traffic then their get out clause on liability for third party behaviour on their networks may be forfeited but that may be a balancing act they have to manage.

Similarly net neutrality gives mobile operators revenue issues.

Unfortunately when the pie is sliced up amongst the stakeholders:

Commercial users of the Net (content owners, retailers, search engines, cloud providers etc.)
Commercial facilitators of the Net (telcos, Ciscos etc.)
Ordinary nay extraordinary net users (general public)

The interests of the general public rarely come into the decision making other than in vague promises about keeping the public at the heart of the debate or platitudes on transparency or consumer empowerment. When there are vague commitments to the 'bests efforts internet' in addition to 'managed services' there is little doubt that the 'bests efforts internet' ultimately means the slow lane for people who are not prepared to or don't have the wherewithal to pay the necessary premium for the managed services.

Just one extra point about managed services.  So often one of the big excuses for saying we'll need special fast lanes is that it will be necessary for elearning.  As someone who has been deeply buried in the practice of so-called elearning at scale for over 15 years the best thing the Commission and Parliament could do for elearning is to gaurantee a universal superfast network infrastructure and make it open.  The thing that most interferes with elearning is congestion and poor quality of service at the ends of the network.  The thing that will fix that is big fat low latency dumb and neutral communications pipes.  How you cut the gordian knot on investment in and construction of such an infrastructure is a tough one. But that's what policymakers should be focussing on not on protecting existing commercial interests.  And maybe they need to be reading up on John Maynard Keynes and thinking about public and private investment in such an infrastructure.  Pay some people to dig holes, pay more people to fill them with fibre optic cables, pay more people to fill them in and pay even more to connect every home in Europe to the fastest open infrastructure in the world.  Connect all those people, spin the continent and watch the magic flow.

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