When we think about internet connection speeds particularly here in Spain, our main concerns tend to be about the very last leg of the journey – as information reaches our homes and offices from the local provider (in our case currently broadband appears to be getting delivered one electron at a time by an elderly burro… but I digress, and this is important so keep reading).
Information is moving around the internet in far more complex ways of course, and the huge backbone of cables which moves data around the world in milliseconds. Whether you are Skyping a relative in the UK or uploading a snap to a social network in Silicon Valley, you don’t think too hard about how the bits of data get from your local ISP to theirs – it just does. The only bit you have to worry about is that final tiny step from the exchange (or wimax antenna) to the router in your house.
How that data moves around the big fast part of the internet has always been governed by certain principles however… although ‘governed’ is not the word, because there has always been a rather anarchic wild-west feel to the way online traffic and the infrastructure supporting it has evolved. This makes in many ways for a very level playing field – the pulses carrying data about my little blog here at Costa Connected have as much right and priority as the ones Amazon or Facebook send out there – data is data, and it’s all equal.
This could all be about to change however, now that control of a lot of that infrastructure is in the hands (within the US) of a relatively small number of vast cable corporations. And they are now partnering with content delivery organisations that make enormous demands on data use, specifically those streaming video on demand.
Because the problem is that neither data delivery nor legal precedent are keeping up with the way technology is used and evolving… And if you are trying to use a service like Netflix you will know how frustrating it is when a broadcast buffers and stumbles along. They know it too, and they want to be able to pay the big cable companies more, to prioritise their traffic.
Sounds like a simple enough request and we all want our movies to stream nicely – but it actually challenges the very bedrock of net neutrality, that the content on your blog is served at the same rate as content coming from the vast cloud servers of Google or Facebook. Which is why the backlash has united some odd bedfellows from the largest to the smallest of online users.
The Federal Communications Commission in the US (FCC) has undergone legal challenge by Verizon, the huge US ISP – and the appeal court has ruled that the FCC does NOT have the right to prevent Verizon from charging a fee to Netflix for a fast-track service. With that decision net neutrality was effectively over, and a two-tier internet existed.
A public consultation period followed during which the commission was deluged with outrage and protest, and a number of submissions from the internet and telecoms corporate giants such as Verizon, Comcast, AT+T and so on. And submissions are now being read and considered.
So how is it going to end up? Decided by lawyers and money of course, and this does not bode well for net neutrality. Comcast, one of the vast ISPs who stand to gain by this ruling, spent over $18m on political lobbying last year – so the level playing field is long gone, and their legal team’s carefully prepared submission is going to carry more weight than thousands of angry bloggers.
And part of the problem is that the legislation involved is complex and dense. This is being fought with law and precedent, and those trying to raise awareness of the issues are up against massive challenges – you can’t reduce this to snappy sound-bites or campaign slogans. Which is why most people using the internet all day every day have not even heard of this debate, and most of the rest have very little understanding of the issues involved however hard they have tried to research and investigate it (I am not a corporate lawyer, and put myself firmly in this category as well).
It is difficult to work out how this change will impact on our day to day use of the internet, especially here in Europe.
In the spring the European Parliament voted to protect net neutrality, and limit the power of telecoms providers to charge third parties for faster network access.
Internet providers will still be allowed to offer certain services at a higher price – video on demand and business-critical data-intensive cloud applications, for example – as long as these aren’t supplied to the detriment of others. Crucially, these specialized services will be restricted to those from the ISPs themselves, rather than those from third parties such as broadcasters. So ISPs can decide to prioritise traffic for videoconferencing – but Google Hangouts cannot pay them to have more bandwidth than Skype for their service, for example.
This restricts the power of the telecoms companies from becoming monopolistic gatekeepers to all online content and services at least, and is an important step forward which can only help support the FCCs efforts. But it’s far from sorted.
And where is your data? Just because we live in Europe, our content and services are increasingly globalised world, on and offline. What happens in the US affects us all, and we need to engage with this discussion and keep the dialogue going.
Let me know what you think – firstname.lastname@example.org; or tweet @casslar
Costa Connected, for Costa Blanca News, August 18th 2014 ©Maya Middlemiss, Casslar Consulting SL