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.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Net Neutrality Summit

I had the privilege of being an invited delegate at the EU Summit on 'The Open Internet and Net Neutrality in Europe' in Brussels yesterday.  The morning sessions were held at the Commission's Charlemagne building and the afternnoon sessions at the EU parliament.

That the lunchtime walk between the two, in freezing driving rain, proved something of a contrast to the wonderful sunny netherworld presented by many of the speakers. The EU was lauded as leading the world in staying out of the way of the market and the, if not perfect, then the best of all possible internets evolving before our very eyes.  Seriously there is a wonderful internet universe out there which will only get better if the EU has the sense to avoid regulating the companies delivering it.

It was a bit like a variation on Groundhog Day as I listened again and again to the same message pouring out of the mouths of speaker after speaker from Cisco, AT&T, Alcatel Lucent, DigitalEurope, Ofcom, GSMA, Cable Europe, Telefonica, NokiaSiemens and others. Actually it is unfair to include Sigurd Schuster of NokiaSiemens. He did at least explain why, in a congested, network the laws of physics dictate the limitations of the technology. Sadly MEP Malcolm Harbour, who was chairing that session, immmediately alighted on Mr Schuster's slides claiming they were a great demonstration of the reasons why the EU needed to stay out of the way of the market and avoid regulating.  Getting back to the message that was repeated by the corporate and trade body speakers, though, it amounted to:

1. There is no anti-consumer or anti competitive behaviour in relation to the internet
2. The is no evidence of anti consumer or anti competitive behaviour
3. Concern about such nefarious behaviour is purely theoretical and scaremongering by extremists
4. All regulation has costs
5. Regulators should focus on 'transparency' and 'consumer empowerment' as cures because regulation is not free
6. The US was wrong, WRONG, WRONG to commit to net neutrality and an open internet
7. The EU can lead the world by not making the same mistake and by refusing to regulate
8. Net neutrality is not compatible with enabling network providers to innovate
9. The Net is brilliant but it will only continue to be so if the EU leads the world by not regulating
10. All is rosy the netherworld of the internet, so don't spoil it! Only extremists want net neutrality.

Ok, so I may be laying it on a bit thick but honestly, having hit the road at 4am to catch the Eurostar and battled the weather all the way to the Commission, only to listen to this shrill corporate claptrap (again, in fairness some were significantly more shrill than others), I felt like cheering when Chris Marsden rose as the sole voice of reason just before lunch. He suggested there was a touch of the three wise monkeys about the message being delivered by other speakers and the desperate collective unanimity, to convey the notion that there is no problem, should raise suspicions.  (Actually even Bernd Langeheine, Director DG INFSO, who had been chairing the session, had introduced Dr Marsden by suggesting there had been an "alarming consensus amongst the speakers so far.").  The good doctor pointed out that vague, broad promises about an open internet and requiring "the consumer to be at the heart of the debate" don't cut the mustard.  The devil is in the details.

Four years ago, Charles Dunstone, chairman of TalkTalk said:
“We shape traffic to restrict P2P users.
"I get hate mail at home from people when that means we restrict their ability to play games."
I’ve got 2 people that have said they’re going to kill me as a result of not allowing them to play certain games.
From our point of view, it’s not about security, it’s about trying to figure out what type of traffic it is.”
I fully understand the need for traffic management on modern congested networks but that is not traffic management for a best services internet or to manage congestion or for security.

And frankly on the notion that regulators already have the tools to step in if there is ever a problem regulators saying "We have received no complaints" is completely different to "we have not listened to any complaints." I'm not sure in the UK whether Ofcom can actually listen to complaints from consumers as I believe it is only ISPs that have the right currently to make a formal complaint. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence and there is a serious need for scrutiny and collection of evidence on the reality of internet services in Europe.  After all if there is no problem there will be nothing to hide.  There is a desperate need for robust independent research and little or no direct empirical evidence on network providers practices at the moment.

The thing is I understand the genuine concerns of corporate actors on this.  Regulating net neutrality is difficult and there is a fair chance that policymakers would screw it up, as they do with much tecnhology regulation. When John McCarthy of Level 3 Communications Limited says his biggest fear is having to tell smart techies who have come up with brilliant technology to stop work until he can consult his lawyers on the legality of the innovation, I share that concern.  For goodness sake we're already there with intellectual property laws.  When Rober Pepper of Cisco says

1. Consumer/citizens should have access to the networks, goods, services and applications they want
2. There should be investment in the network
3. The network should be fit for purpose to dynamically support different kinds of applications
4. We want managed services in addition to the bests efforts internet

I largely agree with him though I suspect we might disagree on some of the details of items 3 and 4.  When he says we need traffic management on current congested networks to give latency sensitive applications like P2P VOIP priority over email, I agree with him. But that's doesn't seem to be what Charles Dunstone meant when he said TalkTalk shape p2p traffic.  When Robert Pepper says caching at the edges of the network will improve some video services (eg BBC iPlayer) but that caching doesn't work for other video services like teleconferencing or Skyping which need high bandwidths, I agree with him.  When he says the net neutrality debate is too often a debate of extremes and false choices I agree with him.

When he then says "extremists would have us freeze the internet in time" we part company because he seems to be saying one group of extremists is wrong and the other is right. Whereas the devil is in the details.  When he says we should avoid regulation and instead focus on transparency and consumer empowerment we again disagree for the reasons I outlined in my submission to the EU consultation. Transparency and essentially meaningless phrases like 'conumer empowerment' are never going to be enough in an unequal world.  And as Jeremie Zimmerman said later, what matters is the harm being done not transparency of the infliction of harm, which if it is accompanied by lack of action to prevent and/or repair the harm is meaningless; and when switching suppliers is incredibly difficult, even in that supposed home of the most competitive ISP market in the EU, the UK.

When Jean-Jacques Sahel, Director, Government and Regulatory Affairs at Skype says the open character of the Internet is the foundation of all the benefits delivered at all levels of the internet value chain from consumer to ISP to innovators for the past 20 years, I also agree with him. When he says also we are heading towards a future of walled gardens or a collection of hinderednets I have to agree with him there too and this will considerably diminish the value of the Net.  There are already problems in Europe.  Skype is prohibited or subject to heavy surcharges on many services.  All mobile operators in France block Skype.  The EU mobile network is crippled and on this front the EU is getting left behind.  Traffic management is not inherently bad when it is used for appropriate reasons eg to manage congestion but it should not be abused for commercial reasons.  Yet it is being used in that way.  When you make discrimination for commercial gain possible it will happen.  That is not just a theoretical concern.  Skype is being blocked by mobile operators in France but there is no evidence of this as it is really difficult for independent researchers have access to the required data to generate sufficiently robust objective evidence to that effect.

The sad thing about the simple "there is no problem, do not regulate" corporate message is that they are selling such a simple story to keep the policymakers out of their hair, yet the devil is in the details and the Jean-Jacques Sahels and Robert Peppers of the world know this.  But when the debate is dominated by the stories being told yesterday I reserve the right to maintain my concerns about the direction of travel on the whole notion of net neutrality in the EU.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Simon Singh on libel reform

Simon Singh writes,
This week is the first anniversary of the report Free Speech is Not for Sale, which highlighted the oppressive nature of English libel law. In short, the law is extremely hostile to writers, while being unreasonably friendly towards powerful corporations and individuals who want to silence critics. The English libel law is particular dangerous for bloggers, who are generally not backed by publishers, and who can end up being sued in London regardless of where the blog was posted. The internet allows bloggers to reach a global audience, but it also allows the High Court in London to have a global reach.
You can read more about the peculiar and grossly unfair nature of English libel law at the website of the Libel Reform Campaign. You will see that the campaign is not calling for the removal of libel law, but for a libel law that is fair and which would allow writers a reasonable opportunity to express their opinion and then defend it.
The good news is that the British Government has made a commitment to draft a bill that will reform libel, but it is essential that bloggers and their readers send a strong signal to politicians so that they follow through on this promise. You can do this by joining me and over 50,000 others who have signed the libel reform petition.
Remember, you can sign the petition whatever your nationality and wherever you live. Indeed, signatories from overseas remind British politicians that the English libel law is out of step with the rest of the free world.
If you have already signed the petition, then please encourage friends, family and colleagues to sign up. Moreover, if you have your own blog, you can join hundreds of other bloggers by posting this blog on your own site. There is a real chance that bloggers could help change the most censorious libel law in the democratic world.
We must speak out to defend free speech. Please sign the petition for libel reform!
(Via Cory)