pichel’s blog

activities related to Fellowship, FSFE and Free Software…

Net Neutrality

Toward a new challenge for Freedom.

First, I think we should define what is Net Neutrality, not so much to play the teacher, but to put things down on the paper, and eventually get some feedback on this definition attempt.

It is difficult to give a positive definition of Net Neutrality, but let’s try to determine all what it can be for people and machines in charge of routing Internet traffic. Here’s a list of the specifications we could provide :

  1. Routing without caring about the content.
  2. Routing without privileging any address.
  3. Routing without privileging any protocol.
  4. Routing without altering the content.

1. 2. and 3. are unsufficient by themselves because you can comply to one or two of them and not compelling the third would result in a non neutral network. 4. is special, it’s about integrity of the content the network has took care of.

To sum that up in a positive sentence, let’s say :

Net Neutrality is achieved when the network transports data, dot.

All the hack will reside in what we put in that “dot”. Because network operators have real concerns about efficiency and health of their networks. Their monitoring can sometimes lead at situations where they have to take technical decisions to solve problems and make their network overall more fluid… while those technical decisions may (or may not) imply some violations of the principles stated above.

A fair example :

  • VoIP : I’m an operator an I know you want to make use of VoIP services. If I realize that without tuning your phone call are of awfull quality, I can decide to give some privilege to your voice packets so that they arrive in time and you can actually make a call. While doing this for a fair reason, my network doesn’t behave so neutral…

A claim for Net Neutrality should not compromise this kind of attitude. But what we are facing now is much more commercial driven :

  • SPAM : in order to “fight spam”, many ISP simply block port 25 forbidding you to use your own mail server. We can understand the attitude at a first glance, but when we realize that spam is sent from ISP’s servers that cannot really be blacklisted (otherwise this would lead half of the world beeing in the impossibility to send mail to the other half), we discover that this port is in fact blocked for nothing.
  • Advertising : a good DNS given with a wrong domain name should answer that the name doesn’t exists. Some ISPs programmed their DNS so that they give a custom answer, pointing to a parking site when such a request is made.
  • P2P : it’s a real problem for ISPs as you know it can blow down a network in minutes sometimes. The blame is for the architecture which hasn’t been thought so that users can ever be producers of information. But add some “downloading is stealing” on to of that, and P2P becomes the perfect evil’s tool. Despite P2P is clearly the most Internet minded application at this time, it the tool that best describes the Internet (I’m talking about the tool, not what it may be used for).
  • VoIPo3G : Voice over IP over a 3G connection. Uh, yes it should work in theory, but does often not in practice. Why ? Because your mobile provider prefers you to pay while phoning than you to use a SIP application which will be comprised inside your 3G Internet access fee.

These are small examples of violations of Net Neutrality that are actually commonly working. It is useful to know that in France those facts fall under the “Code des Communications Téléphoniques”, but without any defined penalty. Network operators act illegally, knowing this, but also knowing that their risk is close to zero. We don’t need any more law to drive this, existing ones are just good enough, if only we followed them !

What is to come ?

  • ISPs may want to protect their income. For example let’s say ISP 1 has contracted with Video stream provider A so that their clients have 1 free movie a month, and a “special rebate” for the rest of the catalog. Let’s say that you anyway find that video provider B fits better your needs. What could happen when you’ll try to download from B ? Oh, well, it was just a technical problem they could argue when you realize that they are routing B’s packet to the worse route they have. So you finally realize that provider A works much better, and contract with them 😉
  • For morality reasons we decide that no pedophilia should transit on the Internet. Well, embarrassing : you wouldn’t stand up and say “Yes this should be allowed to transit on the Internet”, would you ? Well, I’m wondering if maybe you should. Not because you actually want pedophilia on the Internet, but because it’s just like freedom of speech : “I totally disagree with you offending thoughts, but in the name of freedom I’ll fight to death for your ability to say them.” We slowly come to a more philosophical situation of Net Neutrality. Another pragmatic remark is this one : we know that once the tools are there, it becomes much easier to use them in other situations. So now it’s for pedophilia, but tomorrow it will be for “not Vivendi Universal approved music”, and what else after ?

Allowing any violation of Net Neutrality invitably leads to some violation of Freedom. If Net Neutrality can’t be called a fundamental Freedom by itself, it has many relationships with many of them :

  • Freedom of speech
  • Freedom of information and access to it
  • we could even add Free Competition which is not a fundamental freedom, but since it’s claimed by everyone in business while sitting on it…

We can easily see that Freedom of speech and Freedom of information heavily rely on Net Neutrality. For if there are any filters on the network routers we see that any “unwanted information” can become inaccessible for most users.

We live in societies build upon freedom of speech and press, it’s written in the French constitution since 1789, and in many european countries. Now the building of the digital society relies on how we’ll build our information networks. The way we’ll treat those networks will obviously have a great influence on the society we’ll build. If we let monitoring, filtering, privilege get inside the routing, we won’t be able to build a democracy.

This is a reflexion that was held during the RMLL this summer in Nantes. Many french association were around the table, including APRIL. And most of them are aware that now it’s at the european level that we have to act and compete with regular lobbies. I hope that FSFE will be able to make this project up and work together with those communities to strengthen them with it’s experience, and get their strength which is the great number of people behind (over 5000 registered fellows for APRIL).