Thursday, May 18, 2006

Tim Berners Lee: Network Neutrality part 2

In an attempt to get my head round this, I went back to the one item everyone and their pet llama has blogged: the father of the Web, TBL himself, coming out behind network neutrality..

"When, seventeen years ago, I designed the Web, I did not have to ask anyone's permission. [3]. The new application rolled out over the existing Internet without modifying it. I tried then, and many people still work very hard still, to make the Web technology, in turn, a universal, neutral, platform. It must not discriminate against particular hardware, software, underlying network, language, culture, disability, or against particular types of data.

Anyone can build a new application on the Web, without asking me, or Vint Cerf, or their ISP, or their cable company, or their operating system provider, or their government, or their hardware vendor.

It is of the utmost importance that, if I connect to the Internet, and you connect to the Internet, that we can then run any Internet application we want, without discrimination as to who we are or what we are doing. We pay for connection to the Net as though it were a cloud which magically delivers our packets. We may pay for a higher or a lower quality of service. We may pay for a service which has the characteristics of being good for video, or quality audio. But we each pay to connect to the Net, but no one can pay for exclusive access to me. "

Which makes it clearer to me that network neutrality isn't just about a pie in the sky demand for "one rate to rule them all" . To a large extent, I don't care if YouTube has to pay more to get access to the net so x million people can download silly videos of anime characters dancing to copyright-infringed West End musical tunes. Yes I know about freedom of expresion, and plurality of voices, but really, the world wouldn't come to an end. If it was M$ that was one of the most popular targets on the net, and so was being asked to pay a higher rate to receive traffic, would people be up in arms? I somehow doubt it.

But if network non neutrality requires external content identification of packets - that's another story. That's censorship and potential centralised control and all the horrors of the end of the end to end Internet we're used to hearing about from Lessig and Zittrain et al.

But TBL himself still intuitively seems to have the idea that the market does play a role, albeit an unwanted one, in these things.

"When I was a child, I was impressed by the fact that the installation fee for a telephone was everywhere the same in the UK, whether you lived in a city or on a mountain, just as the same stamp would get a letter to either place. "

But it doesn't - as I said in my previous post, a second class postage stamp in the UK is now virtually a license for mail to arrive very late, or not at all; anyone who really wants mail to get there on time sends it first class. Which seems to me to be both a warning and an example: network neutrality in the sense discussed above may be vital, clearly, but if the telcos don't have the legal ability to implement what in other industries would be seen as sensible profit-making strategies, the srvice we all get may degrade. In the EC of course we'd say this was a case, if necessary, for essential/universal quality of service regulation - anyone know if the US has no equivalent?

EDIT : A nice simple video on the matter (via
Lessig blog
.) Reminds me that European universal service obligations do not at least as yet apply to VOIP, at least pre revision of TVF Directive ..

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