In May this year, the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) posted an analysis of TISA (Trade in Services Agreement), yet another shadowy “free trade treaty” (or “low wage treaty” as Richard Stallman calls them), which reiterated loopholes in the leaked treaty text that could threaten network neutrality. A lot of the existing net neutrality discussion is about defending the level of net neutrality we are presumed have at the moment, but on closer examination, a lot of the infrastructure decisions made in the 1990s were far from net neutral.

For example, most net users connect to a ISP which gives them plenty of download bandwidth, but strangles their upload bandwidth, and in many cases explicity forbids them from running their own servers without paying massive extra charges. This is anti-competitive behaviour, as the ISPs are also providing hosting on their own servers as a commercial service. It’s a bit like supermarkets controlling all sources of seeds, and charging more for them, so customers will buy the vegetables the supermarkets sell.

Government net neutrality policy to address this would look something like:

  • All companies providing internet connections (ISPs) must provide both download and upload bandwidth at the same service levels
  • No ISP shall monitor their customers use of their internet connection, nor impose any rules governing what they use it for (phone companies don’t get to police what kind of conversations people have, same principle)

Another issue is that most of us connect our computer to the net from behind a broadband router. The router gets assigned a random IPv4 (Internet Protocol version 4) address from the ISP every time it reconnects (using a system called DHCP or Dynamic Host Control Protocol), and translates between our computers and the internet using a system called NAT (Network Address Translation). Again, this means that instead of our computer being an equal peer in a peer-to-peer network, we’re more like a twig on a tree. I’ve written a bit about this before, in a piece about how the rise of NAT was the reason the author of the Speak Freely peer-to-peer telephony software stopped maintaining it.

The newer version of the Internet Protocol, IPv6, solves the shortage of addresses which led to this practice, potentially allowing every internet connected device (or every person) to have their own unique IP address for life. This does raise some privacy issues, but there are better solutions to these than trying to hide in the crowd of people connected to our ISP. Using a DHCP-assigned address currently tells anyone snooping what country we are in (ever wondered how Google Maps and other sites seem to know?), and which ISP we are a customer of, and unless we disconnect and reconnect our router often, our IP address is the same for long periods of time anyway.

It’s a bit soon to know what a government net neutrality policy should say about this, if anything, and of course I welcome comments from people who can challenge my understanding of the technical issues, or disagree with my interpretation of their social and political implications. The key point is that net neutrality is already an issue, everywhere the internet is being used, one that everyone who cares about the future of the internet as a space for open public discussion needs to educate ourselves about as quickly as possible.

Filed June 24th, 2015 under Uncategorized

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