Network Neutrality Boils Down to "Quality or Equality"

Language matters. Sometimes language is used to halt debate, rather than engage with and contest ideas. In such cases, language is used--intentionally or not--in a fundamentally irrational way, as a substitute for thinking. All of us can think of instances where calling something or someone a name completely shuts down debate about ideas, and becomes a fight about character.

Sometimes language is used--deliberately--to shape thinking, in less invidious, but significant ways. Consider debates about network neutrality, the content of which is quite different in U.S. and European Union contexts.

Some argue in favor of network neutrality by citing instances of lawful application blocking, either in the U.S. or E.U. markets.

And, to be quite sure, “blocking of lawful applications” by an Internet service provider is viewed by regulators in the United States and European Union as a genuine problem, as they should, many would argue.
To be sure, examples of such blocking of legal apps have been quite rare in the U.S. market. In 2008, the Federal Communications Commission swiftly against Comcast blocking of BitTorrent.

Earlier, in 2005, the FCC had moved swiftly against a small telco, Madison River, for blocking Vonage.

In the U.S. market, that is the extent of the record of actual ISP blocking of lawful apps.

Blocking of lawful apps arguably has been a bigger problem in the EU, where lawful apps such as Skype have experienced routing blocking by some ISPs.

That is a problem many would agree must be addressed. People have the right to use lawful Internet apps.

Beyond that is where one might argue confusion begins. The U.S. FCC long ago made blocking of lawful apps an infraction of U.S. policy.

That has not universally been the case in the European Union, where “network neutrality” covers both the problem of lawful application blocking and potential quality of service mechanisms for consumer Internet access.

To be sure, one might reasonably argue that a “neutral” treatment of all consumer Internet apps is the correct term to cover both app blocking and equal treatment of all apps. It is appealing language, as it invokes notions of fairness.

But there inevitably are competing claims of fairness. If a consumer buys a service, that service should work “as advertised.” That applies to video streaming and voice services for which people pay money to use, for example.

That such mechanisms are necessary can be deduced from widespread use of content delivery networks whose value is such that backbone traffic patterns now are shifting from north-south to east-west (north south referring to traffic traversing long haul networks while east-west refers to metro-confined or data-center-confined traffic).

In other words, entertainment video and voice often require “unequal” treatment, to provide reasonable end user experience. People often do not realize that all voice networks actually are designed with “admission control” or actual “blocking” mechanisms to deal with periods of very-high usage.

People experience this as a recorded message that “all circuits are busy now; please try your call later.” That is actual lawful application blocking, but has in the past been necessary at times of peak load.

Internet, compared to circuit switched networks, can deal with congestion in other ways. Some argue ISPs should simply be forced to build networks with more capacity. Others argue that, in addition, apps the require predictable packet delivery should be supported that way networks get congested.

In large part, the arguments have business implications, in particular the allocation of capital investment burdens within the Internet ecosystem. One view is that ISPs bear the sole burden of providing enough bandwidth to support all apps, all the time. That is the “neutrality” argument, which as a practical matter means “best effort” delivery.

Another view is that apps susceptible to packet delay be afforded the ability to better assure packet delivery when networks are congested. That is the content delivery networks approach.

In business terms, “network neutrality” includes both the separate issues of application blocking and the use of “best effort only” or “content delivery network” approaches.

So “neutrality” is a fuzzy term. What we want is that consumers “can use all lawful apps” (no blocking) as well as “lawful apps actually work well” (content delivery networks or not).

In the E.U., “neutrality” covers both blocking and access mechanisms. In the United States, “neutrality” actually refers only to access mechanisms, as “application blocking” is covered by other existing rules.

So language does matter. On one hand, it is easy to understand the power of “equality.” In practice, virtually all consumers already experience content apps whose treatment is “unequal” because quality requires such treatment.

It is in real terms a “quality or equality” debate. Content delivery networks sacrifice "equality" to gain "quality." Best effort access assures "equality" at the risk of "quality."

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