Has Switzerland cracked the net neutrality riddle?

As internet's stop-the-beastliness movement faces a fork

Swiss alps

Analysis Broadband providers in Switzerland – a country synonymous with neutrality – have formulated new rules for ISPs that may save regulators and lawmakers from fruitless battles over "net neutrality".

The code of conduct formulated by Swisscom, Sunrise, UPC Cablecom and Orange pledges to allow all subscribers "to use the content, services, applications, hardware and software of their choice. No services or applications will be blocked. Freedom of information and the free expression of opinion will not be restricted."

That constitutes most people's idea of an open internet with no discrimination against certain web traffic. What about the small print – surely there's a catch? These are "vested interests", after all.

The Swiss code acknowledges that different applications require different priorities, so where video packets for telemedicine or movies need a particular amount of bandwidth to guarantee glitch-free delivery, they must be allowed to get it.

Lawless net?

Quality of service is nothing new, and is needed to keep low-latency packets flowing in between bulk traffic. Prioritizing packets over others dates back as far as RFC 791, published in 1981, which describes a type-of-service value in each IP packet that requests special treatment, such as higher throughput or higher reliability. However, this feature was rarely used, and eventually deprecated by RFC 2474 in 1998. It's up to individual networks how they honour these values, if at all, so other techniques are needed to forcibly limit, or shape, volumes of certain traffic if necessary.

The code of conduct also reserves operators the right to intervene to keep the network running if traffic is high or maliciously disrupting connectivity. Again, most network engineers would readily concede this as an essential duty: a network is a contested, limited resource – an all-you-can-eat-buffet at which Homer Simpson can eat all the doughnuts. Intervention for the purpose of easing traffic congestion remains a necessary.

The problem is that the "net neutrality" cause has gained a life of its own, and like a cold virus, is mutating from year to year. For most of its first decade as an issue, net neutrality meant new rules regulating packet prioritisation.

In 2006, activists were telling us these were needed to ensure that over-the-top (OTT) service providers like Skype – which piggyback on carriers' networks while competing against them – shouldn't be blocked, or slowed down, by said carriers. But apparently "net neutrality" in 2014 is not about packet prioritisation any more. This year it is about regulating private peering arrangements. Which is different.

High-volume, on-demand streamers like Netflix and YouTube can't rely on some of the public internet backbones – not when these trunk roads are expected to carry ever-growing amounts of HD video without frustrating viewers with glitches and terrible picture quality.

The volume of the streamers' outbound traffic means that traditional peering arrangements that are fine for carrying email are now highly asymmetric. So the video sites build their own "fast lanes" or pay for direct peering; Google has done the former, and Netflix has done the latter in the US (and elsewhere) without much controversy. Except among the net neutrality activists.

And this year net neutrality mutated again.

It's now also about stopping Facebook or Wikipedia or Spotify bundling their content or services with ISPs. For example, T-Mobile US doesn't count music streaming against its subscriber's monthly mobile data limit, so users don't run up a huge bill when listening to online radio. "I felt a pit in my stomach," a Time magazine reporter wrote of hearing of this, calling the lack of nausea amongst his fellow journalists "really scary."

And when Wikipedia announced it was providing free net access to its site in developing countries, it was accused of "turning its back on the open internet." Yes: free access to free content for poor people – this is evil, and had to be stopped, activist site Access Now fumed: "Equal treatment of data results in equal access to all. It’s hard to see how zero-rated services can comport with this principle."

Net neutrality has morphed into a general war against Something Unfair: if somebody is doing something on the internet the activists don't like, then a law must be passed to gain control over the telcos.

Somebody's doing something UNFAIR on the internet I don't like - let's pass a law

Somewhere along the line, net neutrality enthusiasts became the climate change activists of internet policy: the strong and ideologically pure drove out the moderates. A spiral of silence. So, as in climate change, far more practical and achievable mitigation strategies – such as increasing use of nuclear power, and working on long-term replacements for coal – were barged aside in favour of "action now".

"Are you like, uh, against civil rights?"

No one wants that kind of grief. The ideologically committed howled down the moderates. In the US, something similar is happening with internet regulation. The movement is gradually splitting into two camps: the Pure and the Practical.

A minority of the net neutrality crusaders want Bell-style 1930s pricing and tariff regulation of all internet companies – which our Kieren McCarthy discussed here. Title II reclassification – which many doubt the FCC can do anyway, as it exceeds their authority – would plant a political flag of control over the minutiae of network operation. As Kieren notes, large chunks of the 1934 regulations are so archaic they would need to be ignored. And Title II wouldn't ban "fast lanes". (Here are the pro and anti camps websites.)

The drawback of Title II is that brings in all the worst aspects of public utility regulation without any of the advantages of a socialised, or nationalised, infrastructure.

In theory, at least the state can direct investment in a nationalised utility. But American utilities such as water and electricity are privatised monopolies, and notorious worldwide for their inefficiency and Soviet-style customer service. Title II would bring the same set of incentives to internet infrastructure – enshrining and protecting today's incumbents – no matter how unpopular they are. Comcast, protected from competition by utility-style regulation, may well continue to vex Americans for the next 100 years.

Judging from our readers' comments, most Americans would prefer a competitive alternative to Comcast – and want to see new entrants able to enter the market with faster, more attractive offerings. They'd like to see cable rendered obsolete by new technology, rather than protected as a regulated duopoly.

Even Google doesn't support Title II reclassification publicly, although it's happy to let others do so on its behalf.

Everyone wants an "open internet", but for most activists, it seems, "make cable as shitty as our electric utility" doesn't seem to be much of a rallying cry. Barely 100 people turned up in the cauldron of Net Neutrality Activism in San Francisco on Friday.

Perhaps that's because nobody knows better how awful American utilities are than Americans. ®

Bootnote

Back in June, I listed a few things that US readers could do to get better broadband – practical action that a grassroots campaign could adopt. These included policing behaviour in oligopolistic markets where there are two providers, and making greater use of their state's competition regulation. Any sign of this yet?


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