Net Neutrality again …

So, the FCC in the United States has abandoned Net Neutrality, at least for now, and the panic has set in again. I was going to go through and talk about Net Neutrality because I have had sites — mainly “The Orbit” — crying wolf about the idea that sites like theirs might be blocked by their ISP — which is an odd claim to make considering that the original outcry about Net Neutrality was over “fast lanes” — and that we needed Net Neutrality to stop that, which struck me as odd. So I thought I’d go out and read up on what the issues were since things seemed inconsistent, and then talk about that … but, as it turns I’ve already done that. Twice. So I encourage everyone to read those posts for the issues around the “fast lane”, while here I’ll talk specifically about blocking sites.

There are essentially three places that a site can be blocked by an ISP. The first is at your end, when you request data from that site. The ISP can refuse to make that connection and thus deny you access to that site. There’s one issue here, though: you are paying for service from that ISP. If they deny you access to a site, they already have to have a reason or else they would be, at least potentially, violating the service contract. This is added to the fact that if they do that, customers complain bitterly. Typically, the argument here is that if an ISP is the only one available for an area, then it doesn’t need to care about that, but that doesn’t really apply in most cases. So if an ISP is going to do this, it’s going to have to be important to them to do so. They aren’t going to do that for a small site like “The Orbit”.

The second place they can do it is at the site’s end. This pretty much runs afoul of the same service contracts as the end user, only more so. This is especially dangerous because you might end up, say, blocking a blog from WordPress, and WordPress is a bit bigger than one customer or even a number of them, and they aren’t going to take it lying down. If they make a big enough fuss, lots of people will pay attention. Again, if they do this, they’d have to have a really good reason.

The third place they can do it is when they are an intermediary in the connection. So, say, Verizon hands off to AT&T in the core and then it gets switched back to Verizon for the end customer. Putting aside the fact that an ISP would be stupid to block a site this way if they didn’t block it for their own customers, there are already a lot of features that rely on ISPs treating packets they get from other ISPs as if they had originated it themselves, without adding extra restrictions. If an ISP suddenly starts blocking access to sites when the two end users are not their customers, those end users will complain to the other ISP, who will have to do damage control, and are likely to at least threaten to start inhibiting their services in retaliation. So even if an ISP blocks sites for their users, they aren’t likely to inhibit pass-through traffic.

All of this changes if they have sufficient reason, such as blocking problematic sites (child pornography being the obvious and uncontroversial example). Besides those cases, the most likely reason would be to give themselves a competitive advantage in some way. If they have a competing service, they can try to block their competitors so that they get more users than they do. Of course, all the other ISPs will try the same thing, which will only cause customers to be incredibly unhappy and likely refuse to use any of them. And the negative publicity will likely force regulations blocking that. They’re more likely to cheat with “fast lanes”, charging huge fees for access to it knowing that their service would, essentially, be paying themselves for that and so they’d break even, while other sites would run into problems with the cost and how to keep their site profitable having to pay for that. Again, note that ISPs are quite likely to respect each others’ “fast lanes”, so it’s sites like Netflix and any site that is independent of an ISP that will feel the heat there. But the issue here is not “fast lanes” or Net Neutrality, but is the fact that companies that own ISPs can and do also own content providers, meaning that they have a conflict of interest that they can exploit. We probably should focus more on dealing with consolidation rather than worrying about Net Neutrality.

As I’ve said in my previous posts, no one really wants Net Neutrality. What we really want is protection from unfair business practices. Net Neutrality is a “motherhood” statement that people are using to get that, but when examined closely that’s not really the way to go, since we can see benefits from not having Net Neutrality and the concerns people are pushing aren’t that credible.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: