Some Data Packets More Equal than Others

The veil was lifted at last today for the world to see actual policy suggestions from the European Commission on the so-called Connected Continent, a. k. a. Digital Single Market. The main topics of debate leading up to this have of course been roaming and net neutrality. Netopia dislikes roaming as much as the next subscriber and would love pan-European flat rate plans (or global for that matter!), but that’s not the most interesting part. Also, the way the package is introduced is one fine example of the idea that the cables themselves will bring economic growth (What about the content? Local marketing? Exclusivity vs accessibility?), but that’s not the most interesting part. No the most interesting part is about net neutrality, because that’s where infrastructure issues turns into questions of money, power, democracy, competition, rule of law and, yes, freedom. It sure sounds good – net neutrality. Who wouldn’t want net neutrality? Except, what is it? Here’s what the regulation communication says:

[…] the obligation on providers to provide unhindered connection to all content, applications or services being accessed by end-users – also referred to as Net Neutrality – while regulating the use of traffic management measures by operators in respect of general internet access. At the same time, the legal framework for specialised services with enhanced quality is clarified.

The concept that all data packets are equal is core to the internet protocol concept. It is what made the internet great. But that’s more than two decades ago and much has happened since, these days a lot of data packets are more equal than others. Carriers prioritise, discriminate, filter, block, and shape data traffic for all sorts of reasons: network integrity, user safety,  sure – but in many cases to increase revenue and decrease cost. Subscribers can buy better access and higher priority. Hosting clients can also pay for priority and bandwidth. Great for business, but it’s nothing like network neutrality. And telcos discriminate against competing services, such as voice-over-IP (Skype, Viber, Tango) decreasing quality so it doesn’t beat old-school telephone service (you know, the kind where you pay for calls). Legally, network neutrality is an American concept with the purpose to promote competition in telecom-services by providing access to infrastructure. The European equivalent used to be must-carry provisions (which rely on government institutions to decide what price is fair for third party traffic). Are you confused yet? Well, so am I, and so is the Commission, it seems. Because while the first part of the quote seems to say that equal access to telecom infrastructure is important, the last sentence talks about “specialised services with enhanced quality”, so it seems not all data packets are equal after all. Just that the inequality should be transparent. Fair enough, but that’s nothing like network neutrality.

So net neutrality isn’t net neutrality, after all. But even if it were, would we want it? Not really, because what is the core meaning of it? Is it not just another way of saying that the internet should be kept “open” and “free”? Which is just another way of saying that democratic institutions should have no authority online. The consequence is not anarchy, but rather a technocratic oligopoly where those few companies who control the technology make the rules. That is the complete opposite of Netopia’s vision of a sustainable digital environment where society and democratic institutions are the guardians of openness, freedom and human rights. So who would want that net neutrality anyway? And with the exception that some services get better quality? That can only be described as the worst of both worlds.