Virgin Media attacks Net Neutrality

Remember what was at stake with Net Neutrality and the nature of business in the coming ‘Internet’ economy?

Virgin Media is, like SFR in France, an Internet Service Provider, but also property of an entertainment company – Virgin is like Vivendi-Universal among the biggest in this industry. I think it’s in their interest to lock the Internet into some kind of great catalogue to the content they’re getting royalties with.

Well, it’s what Virgin Media has clearly announced in its plans for United Kingdom. Some links,

The need for legislation on Net Neutrality is now vital!

The Web, metalanguage

My understanding of the Web is apparently not shared by everyone. Considering discussions going on about, the Web as a public resource, or the promotion of an “open” Web; I decided to give my point of view on this, and to show what issues are at stake here. So first, here is my definition,

The World Wide Web, or what we refer to as “the Web,” is all that uses a common metalanguage: the Web metalanguage.

  • This metalanguage is like every language. Nobody owns it, everyone can speak it and understand it.
  • Like every language, it has its rules: grammar and orthography. For the Web, this rules are what we call the web standards, formalized by the W3C. The W3C is like L’Académie Française for the French language.
  • However, grammar and orthography allow creativity, flexibility. You can make of words whatever you want, you can transform them, use them for other purposes, invent them. Some of your inventions will become mainstream, some will be forgotten… It’s how the language evolves over time; just like the Web has moved from a hypertext system to a hypermedia system with pictures and soon videos.

In order to read this language, all you need is a Web browser. The Web browser is just here to give an “easy version” for most people. That’s where it becomes important to respect standards. However, today, a lot of Web browsers aren’t just Web browsers.

The Web, as a metalanguage, allows hypermedia publications and for that, it uses a set of transport protocols: http being the main one currently. However, all that uses this transport protocol is not necessarily the Web. There are some things parasitizing these protocols and parasitizing the Web.

This things are clearly something else than the Web. It is software, using other things than the metalanguage. The question whether it is Free Software or proprietary software doesn’t change the fact that it’s not the Web.

When you have a Flash video embedded in a website, it is something clearly different. It’s just a proprietary applications delivering content to you through the same Internet protocols that the Web uses. And you can only read it if you decide to install a proprietary program – or a plug-in in addition to your Web browser.

The difference between proprietary and Free Software here, is that while proprietary software doesn’t have any good impact on the Web, Free Software can improve the Web because it is also something you can read, study, share and improve. However, this should not be recognized as part of the Web until it becomes a web standard.

So what’s important is to make sure that this language is good enough to prevent anyone from having to use other programs in order to communicate on the Internet.

Distinctions to make

For the reasons above, I think we should avoid some words such as “open.” To me, there’s no such thing as an “open” Web. Because there is no such thing as a “closed” Web. The Web is this hypermedia system that uses a common language. A language is neither closed nor open! There isn’t such distinction as a “binary” language and a “source” language. There is just language.

However, there is an important distinction to make. If you take into account my definition, facebook is a part of the Web just like my blog is a part of the Web. Some people however would refer to facebook as a closed Web. Here, the distinction is about public and private, not about open and closed.

That’s why I think we are mistaken when we think of the “open” Web or “the Web as a public resource.”

The Web as a metalanguage is a common good, but the World Wide Web, all these hypermedia publications are not a public resource.

Do Advocates of Net Neutrality Disturb?

This year, French Net Neutrality has been strongly targeted with Hadopi — the Government’s project aiming at cutting off the Internet access of people who fail to ‘respect’ copyright. And European Net Neutrality will have to face many threats in the year to come.

We, as Free Softwares supporters, know that Net Neutrality matters and that we should care about it, wherever the threat comes from. But we must also focus on those activists, whose actions contribute to strengthen the little landlocked area where the network does nothing more than carrying data, exactly like our pipes propel the water.

Recently, Net Neutrality-support association French Data Network (FDN), the first historical French ISP, underwent a sudden contract rupture from SFR, its ADSL provider. This is serious threat to Net Neutrality because this shows that big companies can have the power 1) to avoid competition 2) to control which company can or cannot provide Internet access. And this is where it gets dangerous: because FDN respects Net Neutrality while being a viable business, it disturbs SFR. It does so in two ways:

  • SFR is also a telecoms company. Its violation of Net Neutrality not only involves DNS-manipulation, it also involves forbidding some protocols (such as the Skype protocol) so that potential competition cannot be possible.
  • SFR is property of Vivendi-Universal, the number 1 music editor in the CD industry, which has been trying for years to lock the Internet in order to get more profit.

And this is why FDN disturbs, but also why we all should care for the integrity of the Internet. Because, big business or not, when it comes to freedom of expression and artistic creation, we should have the right to make sure that people are neither controlled nor monitored. This is what Net Neutrality is for. It is not fundamental itself, it is fundamental because it makes sure we have a framework that allow people to be free.

As Montesquieu said: a country that does not have the Separation of Powers defined has no Constitution at all.(*)

A worldwide Internet in which Network Neutrality is not defined has no Freedom at all.

This analogy was given by FDN president Benjamin Bayart during the political session of the 2009 RMLL in Nantes, about Net Neutrality and Freedom of speech on the Internet. He also exposed his views on Net Neutrality and his contention with SFR-Vivendi-Universal in an interview in French newspaper Libération. See the discussion going on here.

[*] Declaration of the rights of Man and of the Citizen, 1789. Article 16 « A society in which the observance of the law is not assured, nor the separation of powers defined, has no constitution at all. »