Talking Net Neutrality

BitDepth#951 for August 26

Part of the audience at the start of last week’s discussion on Net Neutrality. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay.
Part of the audience at the start of last week’s discussion on Net Neutrality. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay.

The Room 101 at UWI’s Engineering Building was surprisingly full for the discussion on Network Neutrality hosted by the Trinidad and Tobago Computer Society (TTCS), the Internet Society Trinidad and Tobago Chapter (ISOC-TT) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers Trinidad and Tobago Section (IEEE-TT).

The room number was also ironically appropriate for an event that set out to explore the importance of net neutrality by first creating a platform for understanding the concept. Disclosure: I was invited to moderate this panel discussion.

At it’s core, net neutrality posits that the underpinning of an open Internet should be the principle that service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, and modes of communication.

It was this idea that drove the explosion of the modern Internet after 1990 when steady increases in technology and most importantly, bandwidth, allowed the creation of ever more adventurous software and technology platforms.

The problem is that any commons is always going to be overgrazed, regardless of how idyllic it seems.

The conversation last Wednesday constantly hovered around the decision by Digicel to block access to selected Voice over IP (VOIP) software last month.

In announcing the block, Digicel accused the services of “bypass activity,” noting that, “Unlicenced VOIP operators like Viber and Nimbuzz use telecoms networks to deliver their services, but do not pay the requisite money for the privilege.”

The company blocked access to Tango, Viber, Nimbuzz and Fring, but never responded to questions regarding the status of Skype and MagicJack, which were not blocked.

Four days later, in the face of a growing negative reaction and the prospect of formal involvement by the Telecommunications Authority of T&T, DigicelTT reversed its ban on the services, though the ban remains in force in Haiti and Jamaica, the first countries to experience the communications blockade.

That very day, the TTCS issued a statement on the matter in which it countered that the company’s arguments for instituting the block were technically “unsound.”

Specifically, “VoIP services do not present a significant load on the mobile data network and their current network does not allow them to prioritise data packets by content.”

The discussion emerging from that sequence of events followed the kind of arc you might expect. Digicel was out of sync with modern times. Blocking or attempting to prioritise data streams would destroy an open Internet.

What emerged most clearly was a disconnect between the Internet as a business and the Internet as a commons, both of which are necessary aspects of maintaining the most remarkable technological network ever built.

Freedom and openness encourage innovation and enterprise, the type of thinking that builds businesses like cunning VOIP systems as well as the deeply complicated code that expands and enhances our experiences on the web.

But business decisions drive the expansion of the hardware and infrastructure that’s needed to support an ever expanding and apparently insatiable need for bigger pipe for data streams and faster data packet responses to enable interactions that drift ever more inexorably toward real time.

It’s notable to remember that the single largest jump forward taken by Internet backbone technology was funded by the Dot Com Bubble, a time of wild and unsustainable spending on anything Internet that resulted in a massive buildout of backhaul architecture.

One contributor from the floor at the net neutrality discussion suggested that it might be best to “let the market decide.”

But this is one situation in which the market may not be sufficiently informed about the issues as it needs to be in order to arrive at the right decision.

The issue of net neutrality isn’t as simple as whether Digicel should be excoriated for taking drastic action to preserve revenue from its long distance calls or sneered at for not being more digitally enterprising in its approach to solving the problem.

It certainly isn’t going to be solved if service providers can’t engineer a business model that allows them to attract returns on their investments.

It is, in short, a tragedy of the commons, with both service providers and customers seeking their own interests in a technology that was designed to facilitate the free transfer of information and which has proven resistant to efforts at monetizing old business models when they are transferred into bits.

Last Wednesday’s civil society discussion on net neutrality produced no answers, but raised a lot of questions that demand clarification. That kind of understanding won’t come if businesses cloud the discussions with PR driven obfuscations and users respond with perspectives inflamed by emotion.

A growing, thriving Internet must be paid for, but that coin is no longer denominated only in cash. Attention, access, reliability and excitement are growing currencies being traded in bitspace and everyone has to become both more familiar and more courageous about leveraging them to advantage.