Net Neutrality, Privacy and Hypocrisy

One of the big technology debates in the US goes by the thrilling title of “Net Neutrality.” In the UK we seem to have skipped this part of the debate and moved on to the next, all without many consumers even knowing that anything has changed. As we’ll see, this does not work out well for many end-users and exposes hypocrisy and dishonesty on the part of the Internet Service Providers (ISPs).

The first question you might be asking is, What is Net Neutrality?

To cut a long story short, this is all about ISPs wanting to prioritise some types of Internet traffic to the detriment of others. At first glance this makes some sense. The ISPs have a finite amount of capacity with which to connect all their users to to the wider Internet. By design, all traffic on the Internet is traditionally considered to be equal. That’s to say that my movie download from iTunes gets the same priority as your video chat and my neighbours web surfing.

Is that fair? You’ll get delays and jitters in your webchat if the performance of your Internet connection isn’t good enough. My neighbour doesn’t have quite the same requirements as you. She doesn’t want to be waiting too long for that page to download, but the odd outlier isn’t going to cause any significant issue. And me, well, my movie is going to take a while to download anyway and I’m not planning on watching it immediately.

Right, so it makes sense for you to get full speed and my connection should be throttled back?

Let’s not be too hasty.

As I understand it, there are two main arguments given against traffic shaping (as it’s called), one technical, the other political. The technical reason is fairly simple: the Internet was designed with the assumption that all traffic was equal and we don’t really know what effect large scale traffic shaping would have. It could be the butterfly flapping its wings in Japan that causes a tornado in Florida.

The political reason is probably why the ISPs really want an end to Net Neutrality: they are not entirely impartial when it comes to deciding which traffic gets priority. These same companies want to sell music and movies and voice over Internet services, so what’s to say that they wouldn’t give their own voice traffic priority over Vonage or Skype? ((My parents ISP chose to throttle all P2P software, which may not be a bad choice per se. Unfortunately they also included Skype in this category. I’m not sure whether this was purely an accident or because they are mainly a phone company who are providing “free” broadband and are trying to push people away from VoIP.))

This debate never really happened here in the UK. While the big print in the adverts usually says “Unlimited Downloads!” ((Are people really so gullible as to believe that they can reasonably get unlimited anything? ISPs clearly think so as I am only aware of a few that have bandwidth quotas.)) the small print typically hints at traffic shaping. I suspect this already affects many people without them knowing about it; they just blame their PC or Bill Gates without realising that the problem is actually further downstream.

But as I hinted back in the first paragraph, in the UK three of the major ISPs are taking one further step: they are planning on selling our surfing habits to a third-party so that they can send us context-sensitive adverts.

It can’t be just me that thinks that this is creepy.

Advertisers love the idea as they can see exactly the sites that everyone ((They are three of the biggest ISPs in the UK. So while this isn’t actually everyone, they cover around two-thirds of British broadband subscribers.)) is visiting and not just those that, for instance, have DoubleClick or Google banners.

In return, consumers get some nebulous “security” protection, details of all their web surfing sent to a third party without their consent and even more adverts ((One of the most creepy parts is that if you opt-out then there is still the possibility that you’re still going to be tracked anyway.)).

Where does the hypocrisy come in? Well, recently the UK government suggested that ISPs should police the Internet for copyright infringement. Three offences and your connection is shut-down. These offences, incidentally, seem not to require any legal process or evidence — it’s pretty much the suspicion that seals your fate.

In response to this, the ISPs say:

“ISPs cannot ‘monitor or record’ the nature of the data flowing over their network, argues [the ISPA]. UK data protection laws make deep packet inspection illegal … and even if it wasn’t, complete monitoring is impossible. ‘ISPs are no more able to inspect and filter every single packet passing across their network than the Post Office is able to open every envelope,’ says the ISPA.”

Hang on!

When they can make money selling those records it’s just fine. And when this transaction hinders their own users experience by flashing up adverts without their permission, that’s also dandy. But when it comes to scanning the traffic for law enforcement purposes then it’s both illegal and impossible?

Being an Internet Service Provider has gone from being an almost glamorous, high margin business in the mid-nineties to one barely above commodity level today. It is, perhaps, no wonder that they are trying every last trick to eke out every last penny, but is selling out their own customers really the best strategy?