A Packet of Lies

By Martin Geddes
Martin Geddes

I've been reading the kerfuffle around Comcast's blocking of various random network protocols with interest. Whilst I remain convinced that blanket "network neutrality" legislation remains just a form of digital gripe water (cures colic for cybernauts), there's clearly a problem. As I previously alluded there's a definite consumer protection issue over what you buy when it says 'Internet' on the tin.

So here's tuppence worth of additional input. Maybe there is a hierarchy or taxonomy of "neutrality", each area with its own specific concerns and issues, and potentially with interventionist or market remedies. Here goes:

If asked to draft rules for the above, I'd probably have to grant exceptions for the detection and mitigation of fraud or illegal activity. Inevitably, these lead to vague clauses about "the good running of the network" where the lawyers come in and try to weasel their way out. Somehow we manage to define homicide OK, so neutricide should be clear enough as long as you restrict yourself to addressing a specific consumer protection issue (rather than a generic worry). For example, I'm glad that there's a UK registry of known network hosts for child porn, and blocks them. I don't buy a "slippery slope to censorship" idea, as there's a clear and present harm of images of children being raped accessible in every study and office.

The bottom line is that I can't see how a "neutrality" law can be made a sure-fire consumer benefit. However, I do think that existing competition and consumer protection law is due a refresh to account for the unique market for connectivity and the transport of information goods. It's impractical for a parcel carrier to open up the packets to be "non-neutral", but a whole sub-industry for telecoms. Comcast customers have no means of knowing what they're really buying when they sign the contract, and such information and power asymmetries scream "regulation".

In the competitive UK market, behaviour like Comcast's would just cause a whole bunch of churn, presuming the users notice or care about what's going on. I can't help wondering, though, how much they'll have to spend on upgrading all the DPI equipment as they go to faster DOCSIS 3.0 (as well as keeping track of the protocol changes designed to evade such DPI blocking). Cheaper, more profitable and better PR to just buy more pipes, up the price a little, and offer capped plans for lower-usage users?

By Martin Geddes, Founder, Martin Geddes Consulting Ltd. He provides consulting, training and innovation services to telcos, equipment vendors, cloud services providers and industry bodies. For the latest fresh thinking on telecommunications, sign up for the free Geddes newsletter.

Related topics: Access Providers, Broadband, Censorship, Mobile Internet, Net Neutrality, Policy & Regulation, Telecom