BILETA 2008 : Net Neutrality

Chris Marsden (Essex) is an expert on net neutrality in Europe (and other things); see his SCRIPT-ed article on the topic here. And that’s also his topic for this morning’s keynote. Oh, and and it rained lots aréir but it’s quite mild this morning.

This presentation : It’s about convergence, it’s different in Europe, it’s “politics not economics” and it’s not going away.

Convergence – but this isn’t new, the arguments have been seen in the 1950s (spectrum use), 1970s/80s (cable), 1990s (satellite – in particular Sky and football), 2000s (mobile) – and now Internet.

In the US – monopoly power (see Madison River / Vonage case); it’s a result of the Telecoms Act 1996 and the Trinko and BrandX decisions (which means that all networks are, for FCC purposes, ‘information services’ and therefore not common carriers). Should ‘common carriage’ be reintroduced? He mentioned the papers by Lemley & Lessig, Tim Wu’s arguments, the opposition (from techies, economists and lawyers), and the fun times at the FCC hearing in Harvard this year.

Europe is different, though, because of local loop unbundling, control of significant market power, and there is in fact a trend towards *more* regulation (e.g. roaming, reforms to the electronic communications directives). Also, the ‘content’ is different (in the US, it’s often “a commercial dispute hidden as a freedom (or fr’dom) argument”), whereas Europe has EPG regulation, ‘must carry’, etc. We even have the BBC iPlayer – the ‘death star’ for ADSL networks. What if it’s not VOIP that’s being blocked, but Eastenders? UK consumers are paying for broadband, licence fee, Sky subscription…

Japan, now, is an interesting example – net neutrality is in place, and there’s a privileged role for consumer protection in the legal framework; there are incentives to roll out high-speed (e.g. incumbent NT&T can do so without regulation for a ‘holiday’ period).

The lobbies are the networks (trying to protect investment, not to mention the need to ensure quality of service) vs the content providers (who don’t want to be charged). But the networks *are* actually blocking things like BitTorrent (under the headings of traffic management, antivirus,etc) while advertising unlimited access. And the content providers (like the BBC telling users to lobby their ISPs to switch on simulcasting!) are having a free ride, especially for video and P2P.

Also, the interaction between filtering and net neutrality, which has lots of unforseen possible consequences. And there are issues with competition law, and what of BT which has a dominant position?

Chris also spoke about Phorm, a very interesting yet terrifying ‘adware’ system at the ISP level (“Google on steroids, or Big Brother incarnate”) (couple of links here) – is it even legal? He wondered, though, if Phorm is the response to net neutrality, i.e. if the telco can’t make money through NN, can they make it through something like Phorm?

We also heard a little about ‘end to end’ and other such pronouncements; how much innovation happens “at the edge” in reality? And a related question is on what basis filtering can actually be allowed…

The conclusion looked at DRM, privacy, blocking, hate speech and even the AVMS Directive. The legal provisions, aside from the directive, include the electronic communicaitons directive, the IS Security Framework Agreement, the E-Commerce Directive and more – which taken together mean greater intervention by ISPs in what goes through its network. The regulators are passing the buck – we are going in circles. “They’re all a bunch of tubes”.

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