Going back on net neutrality

Author : Uriel N’GBATONGO. Translated by : Donatien BERTAUD.

Internet, this interconnected space of territories and men, has been growing relentlessly since its creation. Gathering presently more than 3,7 billion daily netizens, the internet network is each day evolving shaped by the will of its users. But beyond being a powerful technologic and encyclopedic tool, internet as a platform represents a powerful stake which regulation is an element more and more considered by firms and states. Due to its global dimension and the reach of the influence of its content, the internet space is governed by a significant number of rues and protocols formalized in order to regulate the activity inside it. One of those most fundamental rules is without a doubt “ne neutrality”.  This law which was often thought of as eternal has come back in the stream of news due to the doubts and numerous pressions against it. In fact, an event is crystalizing what is now animating a good part of the technological and computer debate in 2018 : the abrogation of net neutrality the 14th of December 2017 by the Federal Communication Commission (FCC), the American authority over telecommunication. In France, the subject is considered very cautiously by the authorities which fear that this decision can have a domino effect over the jurisdiction of the whole world, especially in Europe. Up to the point that during last February, the ARCEEP ( autorité de Régulation des communications électroniques et des poste / authority of regulation over electronic communication and mail), manifested in one of its press release its desire to extend the reach of net neutrality to mobile phones.

What are we talking about ? A quick brief of history

1 Uriel

At its beginning, the internet was a secret military project, under the code name ARPANET, lead during the sixties by DARPA ( Defense Advance Research Agency) and various university professors who helmed from the most prestigious university among which the MIT. The internet network, represented already at its very beginning a revolution. The original aim of this project was profoundly filled by a military thought. Indeed, back then in the midst of the cold war against USSR and deeply mired in the controverted Vietnam war, The United States were trying to acquire always more advanced technological tools to gain a tactical advantage. In fact, the project ARPANET consisted in creating a long-range data transmission network between different research centers. This network    was relatively closed at its beginning because it was essentially aimed to create a relation between American university laboratory and, of course, the US army. In the early seventies, following a desire to slightly open up the network in order to shift it to a more ambitious architecture, American researchers developed protocols of communication between computers, also known as “Network Communication Protocol”. One of the most famous among them, because it was a corner stone,  was  the TCP/IP protocol invented by Vinton G. Cerf and Bob Khan two American engineers. The principal goal of TCP/IP was to allow the interconnectivity of different networks by using a common numeric protocol (i.e by using a numeric language). After this we began to talk about internet, or interconnected networks. In 1983,  the ARPANET architecture was split in two : MILNET ( Military Network), the military part considered as a data network linked to the Defense Communication Agency (DCA), and the rest of ARPANET  shifted toward a more civilian oriented use because it was destined to allow communication between scientific laboratories. Year by year, the number of potential users kept growing, to the point that questions on the limits of the ARPANET architecture were raised, especially in 1989 with the opening of internet to private civils and firms. In France, for instance, the democratization of the Minitel as early as 1989 was a powerful catalyst of internet development.

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The heyday of the widely available internet was without a doubt reached with the introduction of the World Wide Web (www.), which father is Tim Bernard-Les, a researcher at the  CERN ( Centre Européen pour la recherche nucléaire/ European center for nuclear research). It was after this point that began to be developed browsing software such as Mosaic or Netscape Navigator, then later search engines such as Yahoo or Google. In a nutshell, at the beginning a “mere”  tool of data transmission, internet has now become a global platform which today under its 2.0 form is an exchange platform, of sharing, production and trade.

What is net neutrality?

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Since its official abrogation on the US territory by the FCC on Thursday the 14th of December 2017, net neutrality, as a funding rules of the web, has without a doubt never been has hyped by the media. But what is really behind the term “net neutrality”?  Funding principle of the web, the principle of net neutrality rely on a quite simple idea : the non-discrimination of users and contents. More Precisely, this principle states that every individual must have an equivalent access to the internet and that the data packets in transit on the network should circulate at the same speed independently of their nature (e-mail; video, picture,…), their sender or their destination. This wording was popularized by Tim Wu, law professor at the Columbia Law school, to describe how during the seventies, the telecommunication authorities tried to prevent AT&T, back then in situation of monopoly, to block access to the network to potential new telecommunication firms.

To summarize, this principle allow in theory each user, be it a member of government, a private individual or even a professional, to benefit of the same browsing possibilities and access to web data. However, this fundamental right of internet functioning is more a tacitly accepted rule than a formal law (even if in 2015 President Obama had shown his intention to make it a directive of the FCC). As such, net neutrality can be put into question at the whim of political influences in power (which will have a deep impact on the functioning of the internet). An analogy often used by the media to explain the impact of the presence or absence of net neutrality, is that of an highway. (Cf picture below)

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On the left the situation with an enforced net neutrality and on the right a multi speed internet without net neutrality.

Beyond any bias on the topic of the regulation of internet networks, we ought to realize that the disappearance of such a rule has heavy consequences. Firstly, the more loyal partisans of net neutrality argue of the ethic character of neutrality, which allow small creators of content to go through the same connection “pipes “  than the net giants. Indeed, if the ISPs (Internet Service Providers) ceased being neutral, they could change data speed according to the type of data, or else offer additional fees to firms that have the financial capacity in order to obtain a faster and larger data throughput. Long story short, the perfect model of a multi speed internet. It would be the beginning of a concurrence between websites and enterprises not as much on the content butt on data speed (an element which will depend on the capacity of the web actors to pay).

Arguments against net neutrality

In fact, various economic or technic arguments are used to defend a non neutral internet. Paradoxically, the principals opponents of net neutrality the ISPs are also invoking a freedom of internet to defend their cause. It is true that nowadays, despite the fact that telecom operators possess the optic fiber cables that constitute the physical base of the internet, they have no liberty over managing the data going through them.

Furthermore, arguing that the cost of network infrastructure is rising constantly, due to the development of online streaming services, the telecom operators wish to change the economic model of the present internet in order to increase their economic result and therefore invest freely to innovate or improve the quality of their services.  In brief, the idea is that internet is today more or less under regulation of different bureaucratic organs such as the FCC in the US or the BEREC ( Body of European Regulator for Electronic Communication) in Europe, which restrained the liberty of ISPs to appropriate the network infrastructures to develop their offer. More Precisely according to Ajit Pai present president of the FCC, net neutrality would be one of the major barriers to innovation. Why such an argument ? In real life, without net neutrality telecom operators could revolutionize their economic model by offering not an uniform offer but a custom made one to respond to the needs of each and every user of the networks.

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Above an image coming from Reddit illustrating what would potentially become an internet offer in a “post net neutrality” era. The telecom operators could fragment their offer according to the daily needs of their users. I.E an access to gaming sites, media, blogs, online streaming, marketplace, etc. Concretely this would induce an additional cost for private users whomever they might be if they want to access to the totality of the internet or only a portion of it. Nevertheless, this fragmentation would allow telecom operators to allocate more easily their investments in order to innovate rapidly on certain specific parts of their services as far as data throughput is concerned, specifically for professionals such as those in the medical industry or in the information one, without needing to invest in the network infrastructure as a whole.  It is the opening of a multi speed internet for some of its most important users it would be faster because the investment of telecom operators would be more concentrated at the expense of the rest of the network infrastructure. On this subject, Stephane Richard declared on BFM business in December 2017 that « Certains usage futurs de l’Internet – je pense à l’Internet des objets ou à la voiture autonome – vont nécessiter des Internet Particuliers en termes de latence et de vitesse. Il faudra que nous soyons capables de proposer des Internet avec des fonctionnalités, des puissances et des qualités de service différents. Il faut nous laisser faire ». ( Some future uses of the internet – I think of the internet of things or the autonomous car – will require specific internet in terms of latency and speed. We will need to be able to offer internet with different functionality, power and quality of services.)

Only the future would tell if this utopian vision for some or dystopian for others will become a reality. Still the battle doesn’t seem to have been won by the partisans of the non neutrality. In France an in Europe net neutrality is enshrined in the law and the ARCEP has clearly positioned itself as a future defender of this principle in the coming years here in the old continent. Across the Atlantic, the decision of the last 14th of December is far from being unanimous among American states. After a fierce judiciary battle the state of Washington has become on the 6th of Mars 2018 the first American state to establish a clause aiming to protect in its jurisdiction net neutrality. This first rebellion is without a doubt the harbinger of an ethic, economic, political and firstly technological debate, around what is for sure the corner stone of the 21st century: the Internet.

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