Digital Life

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - Matthew Web­ster

‘Net neu­tral­ity’ is a phrase you will soon hear more of­ten. This is partly be­cause of Don­ald Trump’s choice to run the US Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion (FCC), but also be­cause of Brexit.

So, what is net neu­tral­ity? It is the prin­ci­ple that in­ter­net ser­vice providers (ISPS), like BT and Vir­gin, should al­low their users equal, un­fet­tered ac­cess to all in­ter­net con­tent, ir­re­spec­tive of where it comes from, and not block or favour any par­tic­u­lar web­sites. There was a fuss a while ago when it came out that some ISPS were send­ing some online ser­vices down the line faster than those in which they had no fi­nan­cial in­ter­est, as well as slow­ing down com­peti­tors of­fer­ing some­thing sim­i­lar. This dis­cov­ery caused some gov­ern­ments to leg­is­late to reg­u­late the in­ter­net as if it were a pub­lic util­ity, like wa­ter or elec­tric­ity. Europe has fol­lowed this course, as has Amer­ica.

How­ever, Mr Trump’s ap­pointee at the FCC, a lawyer called Ajit Pai, sees reg­u­la­tion of any sort as in­trin­si­cally bad and be­lieves that sup­pli­ers should be able to do busi­ness as they wish. And of course, no one knows what will hap­pen here af­ter Brexit.

It’s a thorny busi­ness. On the one hand Mr Pai wants to re­duce reg­u­la­tion in the name of free trade, which sounds con­vinc­ing enough, but those in favour of net neu­tral­ity say that it’s free trade that will be at risk if neu­tral­ity is aban­doned. In no time your ISP would be­come some­thing like a publisher, mak­ing it eas­ier for you to look at sites that ben­e­fit the ISP fi­nan­cially, and pos­si­bly even block ac­cess to com­peti­tors.

Op­po­nents of net neu­tral­ity say this is non­sense, and that the mar­ket place will act as reg­u­la­tor. I’ve no doubt it will, but my sus­pi­cion is that, with­out reg­u­la­tion, ISPS will quickly start of­fer­ing dif­fer­ent lev­els of ser­vice to those who will pay more; in­deed, they are al­ready say­ing, with some jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, that there is lit­tle in­cen­tive for them to in­stall costly new high-speed con­nec­tions if they can’t milk them for in­come later.

Of course, in some coun­tries, they laugh at such niceties. The Great Fire­wall of China forces all Chinese web traf­fic through a sin­gle govern­ment-con­trolled route, which al­lows them not only to have a look at what you are up to (if they can be both­ered) but also to ar­bi­trar­ily block or slow ac­cess to web­sites they don’t like. Google, Youtube, Face­book and Twit­ter are all blocked sites, for ex­am­ple.

Chinese peo­ple can get around it by us­ing a vir­tual pri­vate net­work (VPN), which is a third-party ser­vice that con­founds the govern­ment watch­ers; they can see you are con­nected to the VPN but they can’t see what you are do­ing be­yond that. VPNS are openly used by mil­lions of peo­ple in China, and are very pop­u­lar, ex­cept with the au­thor­i­ties. They’ve tried to crack down on VPNS be­fore, but re­cent de­vel­op­ments sug­gest that they are do­ing so with re­newed vigour.

Late in Jan­uary it was an­nounced that VPN com­pa­nies would have to seek Chinese govern­ment ap­proval to con­tinue, and it’s hard to see VPNS that cir­cum­vent the Great Fire­wall be­ing granted a li­cence. More­over, any­one who runs a VPN op­er­at­ing with­out a li­cence will be ‘se­verely pun­ished ac­cord­ing to law’, which in China is a fairly chill­ing prospect

So we are faced with an odd choice, which leads to no choice at all. Ei­ther you have a free-for-all à la Trump, which will in­volve some­one else (the ISPS) de­cid­ing which sites we can see, or you fol­low the Chinese route, which in­volves, guess what, some­one else (the govern­ment) de­cid­ing which sites we can see. The devil and the deep blue sea spring to mind. It all makes me keen on reg­u­la­tion, not words I ever thought I would say.

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