Centralisation and Fragmentation Challenge Net Neutrality-concept

Europe is busy debating network neutrality, the idea that all data packets should be treated equal. Except for spam, that should be filtered out. And viruses, which should be deleted. And other harmful code, that should be blocked. And perhaps also criminal or infringing content. But apart from those exceptions (and potentially some others), the network should be traffic neutral. No discrimination of traffic, no prioritisation. Neutrality as equality or justice, that is the concept that regulation or other intervention hurts the delicate balance, the fairness that the invisible hand made. Freedom as when the state stays out. Funny how Europe fell in love with such an American flavour.

The idea of network neutrality builds on the assumption that the network is its own entity, separate from the content and services that run on it. In the old era of state-owned telecom monopolies, the network may have been distinguishable from the content (but not really because the monopolies ran all sorts of services, remember Minitel in France?). The American networks were operated by private companies, but with legislation competition could be secured – ergo network neutrality.

However these days, the lines are blurring. Two main trends challenge the idea of the independent network, one of centralisation and the other of fragmentation. Centralisation because internet services are building their own networks, such as the 1000 megabit Google Fibre that is currently built in some US cities. Facebook invests in sci-fi technologies like lasers and drones to deliver internet access to far-off places. With the Internet.org-initiative, competitors Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung, Qualcomm (chip manufacturer), Opera (browser software), Mediatek (chip manufacturer) and Facebook, aim to bring the gift of internet to least-developed countries. Please note that neither one of them is a telecom operator. How can the network be neutral if Google owns it?

The trend of fragmentation is multihoming traffic which is set to become the next decade’s mobile digital communication, where data is agnostic to whether it is carried over wi-fi, mobile networks or cable – even turning the phone in your pocket into a relay for third party traffic (or your vacuum cleaner if the smart home/internet of things-hype is to be believed). Some talk about the “sneakernet” which is off-line file-sharing between users that meet in the meatspace using pocket devices with enough storage space to carry big parts of the internet as we know it (or, you know, all films and music ever made). If the network is in your pocket, is it a tangible thing that can be distinguished from what’s next to it? Can it be neutral?

Europe is barking up the wrong tree, folks. We should throw out neutrality and think in terms of protection of rights, where we will need institutions and regulation that recognise the connection between the cables and what is inside. And in spite of all her talk about the merits of network neutrality, Commissioner Kroes is no stranger to the concept. Last year she committed €50 million to 5G mobile network research.