Net neutrality needs transparency and trust, and the US is fresh out of both

net neutrality
Image credit: Yiorgos GR / Shutterstock.com

Net neutrality is back in the headlines in the US, and for the most part, it’s boring.

Which is not to say that it isn’t newsworthy – the FCC is reversing a major policy that will have a major impact on both broadband access services and OTT services. That’s obviously a big deal.

But both sides are basically recycling the same arguments that circulate every time the FCC revisits the net neutrality issue, only louder. At their most politically extreme, both sides are framing the issue as an epic battle for total control of the internet that will totally kill it. If you’re pro-neutrality, you advocate a disastrous government takeover of the internet. If you’re anti-neutrality, you advocate letting greedy corporate telcos create service/content monopolies and kick everyone except rich people off the internet forever.

Blah blah blah.

This is why I don’t comment very often on net neutrality – like everything else with a political angle to it these days, it’s damn near impossible to have a rational conversation about it. Most people shout and sneer and spin come conspiracy theory about cabals and elites and The Other Side’s True Motivations, and if you’re not with us, you’re with Evil, yada yada yada,

Still, I get paid to wade into these stupid arguments every so often. And so.

Maybe it’s because I have no skin in the game, but to me the net neutrality issue is relatively simple. When you hack through all the rhetoric, both sides basically have a valid concern. ISPs need the ability to prioritize bandwidth so they can balance traffic loads and make sure latency-sensitive services like video work properly. OTT services don’t want ISPs using that ability to throttle them in favor of the ISP’s own competing services.

I don’t see why these two basic goals are mutually exclusive. Even Netflix throttles bandwidth from time to time in the name of service quality. To my mind, the problem isn’t throttling itself, it’s why one throttles. If you’re doing it to manage traffic, that’s one thing – if you’re doing it to degrade a competing service, it’s another.

Telcos in the US are frequently accused of the latter, and now that the FCC is proposing a new net neutrality policy that seems to be rooted in the idea that self-regulation works just fine, it’s up to telcos to prove that they can prioritize and optimize traffic fairly without targeting OTT competition.

Given the current level of hysteria in the discussion, that’s not going to be easy. Last Friday, Verizon confessed that it had recently been throttling traffic from video providers like Netflix. To be clear, Verizon said it was doing so in the name of network optimization. But pro-neutrality advocates aren’t having it. The Verge argues that the video experience was affected enough for customers to notice, and implies that the “test” could be considered a net-neutrality violation.

Verizon has apparently decided that the solution to this is consumer education. To that end, they’ve launched a web page explaining how Wi-Fi works. However, Hacker News has already pointed out that the site is riddled with inaccuracies.

Which is probably as well, because most internet users don’t care how Wi-Fi or the internet works, and wouldn’t understand it if you tried to explain it to them. They care about the experience, and they expect their ISP to provide sufficient bandwidth for whatever content they want to access. Lobbing a page full of dumbed-down technical gobbledygook at them is not really the best way to explain why their video stream hangs sometimes.

That said, Verizon is on the right track in one respect – transparency is crucial to any net neutrality policy (whether regulatory or market-driven). One of the reasons pro-neutrality groups are so suspicious of telcos and ISPs is because they don’t tell anyone they’re throttling traffic – whether for legitimate reasons or otherwise – until they get caught doing it. Sure, who could blame them, what with the environment as politically charged as it is? And yes, there may also be commercial concerns about letting competitors know how you run your network, etc.

But any decent net neutrality policy that benefits everyone has to foster trust on both sides, and you can’t really do that in the dark. Transparency is essential to show that everyone is acting in good faith.

Also, I’m not convinced that’s something that can be simply left to market forces, as the current FCC proposal seems to do, especially in the current environment. “Trust us” doesn’t work when OTT players and customers already don’t trust you. You need trusted third-party arbitration of some kind to get the ball rolling.

It’s not like there’s no precedent for this – countries like Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore already have net neutrality policies that allow for traffic control measures as long as they’re fair and transparent. They’re by no means perfect, and they may need to be revised as services become more software-based, but they generally seem to work.

There might be good reasons why a similar approach wouldn’t work in the US. But we may never know what they are as long as everyone just keeps screaming the same old accusations at each other.

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