August 2010

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What is Net Neutrality?

Net neutrality is the principle that Internet access should be treated as a utility, like electricity and water supply.

On a ‘neutral’ Internet, your service provider sells you a level of service for access to the Internet but does not alter your service based on what you might use that access for. Your fees, connection speed and quality does not change whether you're using a Mac or a PC, whether you're accessing YouTube or YouPorn.

Following the electicity analogy, you pay your power company for a supply of electricity, but they do not care whether you use it to power a hair dryer, television or a kettle. On a non-neutral electrical grid, your power company would be able to tell you that your water would take twice as long to boil unless you used a Kambrook brand kettle.

Proponents of net neutrality say that it opens up the Internet to innovation. If YouTube had needed to strike individual deals with major Internet providers, putting money in the pockets of each to guarantee its videos were delivered without interruption, there would probably be no YouTube. Critics say that it is an unwarranted interference in the major Internet providers right to do business as they see fit, and that major backbones such as the big US Telcos have the right to charge extra for companies like YouTube who consume significant amounts of their bandwidth.

We don't have net neutrality in Australia: ISPs often offer “sweeteners” in the form of exempting certain sites such as the iTunes store from your monthly bandwidth cap. This is a bad thing (i.e. anyone who might want to compete with iTunes must strike a similar sweetheart deal with ISPs) but because we're a small market where most consumers have several internet providers to choose from, its not as big a deal as it happening in the USA.

Why is this announcement a big deal?

Up until now, the net neutrality fight in the USA has seen the major telecommunications companies who control the major Internet backbones and also monopolise large areas of consumer Internet access in the United States on one side. Opposite them has been the Internet industry represented largely by its 800lb gorilla, Google. In the middle has been the Federal Communications Commission which, because neither side has been able to reach agreement, has been forced to take a role in regulating the industry.

Through this deal the two biggest antagonists in the fight are now working together to write a joint policy proposal on net neutrality. It is very likely that their agreement will be the new status quo for the enforcement of net neutrality in the USA. More, the provision specifically takes the FCC out of the role of regulator, and turns them into a simple ombudsman, overseeing the rules the industry sets for itself.

What does the announcement entail?

In broad strokes, Google and Verizon agree that net neutrality is a good thing. They ask that the FCC be allowed to enforce that everyone with an Internet connection should be provided equal and fair access to all of the services that the Internet provides, except in the case of:

  • access to illegal content
  • “additional, differentiated online services” offered by the providers themselves
  • wireless and mobile services

Why should you be worried about the exceptions?

Illegal Content

Internet censorship is a thorny issue, the solution to which sadly does not fit into the margin of a blog post. Why on earth would Verizon want to explicitly take on the role of Internet Cop? Who would want the thankless task of deciding what is or isn't legal and regulating service as a result? Why not leave that job to the courts, policemen and lawyers?

The short answer: BitTorrent.

File-sharing, most of it illegal, consumes a not insignificant chunk of the Internet's available bandwidth. Verizon has led the charge in throttling its users use of BitTorrent, the most popular file-sharing protocol. ISPs make money from the disparity between the bandwidth they sell to consumers and the amount the consumers actually use, so throttling back the largest user of that bandwidth in the name of protecting copyright makes good business sense.

So the proviso that neutrality only extends to “legal content” is short-hand for “We will continue to assume that BitTorrent is illegal traffic and throttle it accordingly. Oh, and fuck you Pirate Bay”.

BitTorrent is also the only way for people without access to the big, expensive content distribution networks to distribute large amounts of data without crippling bandwidth costs. Independent film-makers and musicians are using BitTorrent today to bypass traditional distribution systems and get their work in front of viewers and listeners. This sort of collateral damage is irrelevant to the ISP.

Differentiated Services

On one hand, the idea that some services may be sufficiently “differentiated”, a word only defined in terms of itself and a grab bag of unrelated and increasingly ill-defined examples, to be exempt from neutrality provisions is a loophole wide enough to run a truck through. In a world where more and more data is sent using Internet protocols, the boundary of the Internet itself is less and less well-defined. How does one say what lies on the other side of that line?

Some commenters have gone as far as suggesting the provision is a forerunner to the backbone providers simply stopping adding capacity to the Internet itself in favour of an alternative, closed network that they can control.

Wireless Exemption

The statement justifies the exemption of mobile services from neutrality provisions ‘because the mobile marketplace is more competitive and changing rapidly’.

This makes no sense. The wired Internet was not hampered in its competition or rate of change by the assumption of net neutrality. On the contrary, the low barrier to entry of the open Internet was what made most of the giants we know today–the Amazons, eBays and even the Googles—possible.

Of all the provisions in the Verizon/Google statement, this is the most blatant land-grab by two companies that are currently close partners in providing mobile services. It is the telephone company saying ‘We will not lose control of the mobile networks in the same way we lost control of our wired networks. We will not give up our position as the keepers of the gates and constructors of the toll roads.‘ and it is Google saying ‘Thankyou for selling a lot of Android handsets. I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.’

Over the weekend, I discovered the High Voltage SID Collection, and as a result have had the tunes from half-remembered Commodore 64 games stuck in my head for the last twenty-four hours.

Particularly: Wizball, Marble Madness, Commando and the much less well-known “Dragons Den” which came on a cartridge with the computer itself and was, for quite a while, the only game we owned that we hadn't typed in ourselves from a book.

I also learned that my earliest memories of home-computer sampled sound were the result of a bug in the C64’s sound chip being exploited by clever programmers:

Due to imperfect manufacturing technologies of the time and poor separation between the analog and digital parts of the chip, the 6581's output (before the amplifier stage) was always slightly biased from the zero level. By adjusting the amplifier's gain through the main 4-bit volume register, this bias could be modulated as PCM, resulting in a "virtual" fourth channel allowing 4-bit digital sample playback. The glitch was known and used from an early point on, first by Electronic Speech Systems to produce sampled speech in games such as Impossible Mission (1983, Epyx) and Ghostbusters (1984, Activision). – MOS Technology SID, Wikipedia

So there’s your totally useless information for Monday.

Every Googler I spoke to (OK, both of them) about the now cancelled Google Wave, I asked when it was going to be incorporated into GMail.

There was some very interesting technology in Wave and some really compelling ideas on how to facilitate rich real-time online conversation. There were also some usability issues, but those are the sorts of things that can be, and were being sorted out. The big hurdle was always convincing people that using Wave was a better idea than sending an email, pinging someone on IM, writing a note on Facebook or any of the thousand other ways people communicate over the Internet these days.

As a writer of collaboration software, the “How do I get people to use it?” question comes up a lot. To get people to use your application you need to give them a compelling reason to visit the site: not just once to see what it’s like, but every day to check what's new. For social software you need to get over the Catch-22 hurdle: you need content to bring people to the site, and you need to bring people to the site to generate content.

You need a circuit-breaker: a path from the old way of doing things to the new.

Wave was supposed to be an email killer, but there was never any migration path. Google Talk and Buzz both benefit from a presence in the GMail UI: I wouldn't even know Buzz existed if it wasn't reminding me from my Inbox. Integrating Wave with GMail seemed to me like the logical next step, allowing GMail/Talk users to enhance conversations amongst themselves while somehow keeping non-Waved participants in the loop.

Sticking Wave in a quiet corner and not letting it play with the other children just seemed like a bit of a waste.