Contentious Connections

I have a comment piece in the Guardian today about network neutrality and BT’s Content Connect service. The online version is here.

I’ll let the article stand largely by itself, whilst pleading the difficulty of putting the net neutrality debate across in 800 words whilst simultaneously linking in BT’s Content Connect.

One point I would like to add, for anyone who finds this, is that the term “net neutrality” can be, and often is, very misleading; if you’re new to the subject then “neutrality” almost certainly means something different to what you think it means! Common terms combined with complicated technical subject matter are a recipe for disaster. Tim Wu’s excellent “Network Neutrality FAQ” should be required reading for this subject.

The Guardian article in full:

The desire for high-bandwidth internet services, such as internet TV is placing ever greater demands on the internet’s infrastructure. New technologies are being developed to meet these demands, but companies are increasingly considering new business models. With its Content Connect service, BT has brought itself into conflict with a fundamental design principle of the internet, raising concerns that the drive for profit could lead to changes that will harm consumers and content producers.

The principle in question is that of net neutrality, which broadly states that data passing over the internet should be treated equally regardless of whose data it is. From a user’s perspective this means that your ISP should not, for example, prioritise Google’s traffic to you over Facebook’s. Net neutrality is the cause of much debate and confusion. It is accepted that prioritising one type of data over another is necessary for the internet to function. An ISP will therefore give preference to voice or streaming video data, as these rely on swift delivery to be useful; however, preferentially treating one content provider’s videos over another is considered unacceptable. Differentiation of service should therefore be made solely for engineering or quality-of-service considerations, and not for commercial exploitation.

Proponents of net neutrality, such as the UK’s Open Rights Group, argue that, by treating all content providers equally, the internet provides a level playing field that stimulates innovation and competition. If Google could pay to have their content delivered more quickly than Facebook’s they would have a significant advantage, and smaller companies could be squeezed out of the market. This could result in a higher level of market domination by large companies, and in a “tiered” internet in which access to certain content requires extra payment for premium services.

BT’s Content Connect service is a direct response to a demand for internet TV, and works by reducing the amount of data transferred across the internet by temporarily storing popular content close to end users. From a technical perspective, this is an excellent way to improve content delivery. The controversy is the business model that drives the service. Rather than agnostically storing popular content, such as the latest digital episode of Coronation Street, access is offered by ISPs to content providers such as Google, who must pay to have their content delivered at higher speeds and qualities. This allows those providers that can afford the service a significant advantage over those who cannot, these being relegated to the slower traditional network.

The US has recently passed legislation supporting net neutrality, although the EU has indicated that it views such laws as unnecessary “at this time”. But is net neutrality, as a principle, necessary or even desirable? Opponents have argued that, given the essentially democratic nature of the internet, market forces should be sufficient to regulate companies. If ISPs choose not to carry certain content then their customers will leave them for more content-rich providers. Indeed, by preventing commercial differentiation of services, opponents argue innovation by companies seeking profit will be stifled. BT itself has claimed to support net neutrality as a principle, but stated that “service providers should also be free to strike commercial deals should content owners want a higher quality or assured service delivery”.

As the debate continues, there is increasing pressure from companies to maximise profit while meeting the increasing demands of users. We can hope, and must ensure, that the factors driving the development of the internet sustain it as a free and open medium of exchange, and that the drive for profit is not allowed to override this ideal.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.