Net neutrality: why it’s important and we should campaign on it


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2:30 pm - December 3rd 2012

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by Tom Chivers

At 10:26 GMT on 30th November, the Google traffic monitoring service recorded a total halt in all internet services in Syria. The research firm Rensys has noted that “all 84 of Syria’s IP address blocks have become unreachable, effectively removing the country from the internet.”

While this on its own is troubling, as it no doubt signals another attempt by the Syrian government to undermine the organisational abilities of the opposition forces in the country, this literal plug-pulling is sadly just one more example of a government abusing its control of network provision.

The Google Transparency report details a terrifyingly long list, compiled from only the last few years, of each instance where some or all of a country’s access to the internet has ceased. Some of the culprits won’t surprise you – Iran, China, Pakistan, Libya, and Egypt all have a dire record of providing stable network services.

However, some of the smaller examples listed hint at a greater problem beyond malign, repressive states. In March 2009, Bangladeshis were totally unable to access YouTube for 4 days after the government claimed that a video threatened to escalate a military crisis.

In August the same year, Morrocans were blocked from using Google Earth for over a year as arguments over the Western Sahara enflamed. In January 2010 the Kazakh government blocked its citizens from viewing a number of different news and blogging websites associated with the opposition movement.

We need only look to our own shores to see how net neutrality, the idea that all information online is equal and free from interference, is under threat. During the London riots many public figures demanded that the Blackberry Messaging service (BBM) be shut down, and only recently the Home Secretary Theresa May’s flagship Data Communications Bill, which would allow for blanket surveillance of all internet usage, was revived for a second consideration in parliament.

Meanwhile, internet service providers are flirting with two-tier access systems; by allowing content providers to pay for better service, the net would essentially be segregated into premium and ‘economy’ services.

These examples are indicative of a festering global crisis which threatens free and open access to internet services, but while these infractions have met widespread public opposition, they are only ever criticised individually. The wider problems facing open data and equal access are overlooked in these sporadic bursts of outrage and at present only a few campaign bodies, such as the Open Rights Group, have stood up for the integrity of the net as a whole.

These groups have commendable proposals for protecting online equality; repealing the Digital Economy Act, for example, would loosen up the copyright laws which have given huge entertainment companies a financial dominance over artists and creators.

Statutory measures are also an effective means for underpinning users’ rights, but what is needed most of all is a continual campaign of awareness and reporting. If Britain is truly supposed to be a standard-bearer for democracy, free citizenry, and government accountability, it’s time that we start expecting those same qualities online, for internet users both in the UK and worldwide.

Unless we alert the wider public to this slow death of the free internet, the true value of open access will never be treasured.

And if we stay silent when other nations (mis)use the net to oppress their peoples, it won’t be long until the internet goes the way of all other technologies which were once capable of such feats; grossly over-regulated, unnecessarily commercialised, and incapable of serving the needs of those it was created for.”

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Reader comments


The censorship observed in the OP is about governments blocking access to the internet or other telecommunications. Governments, in times of crisis, thought that they could save themselves by blocking communication.

Which has nothing to do with “net neutrality” as it is commonly understood. Here’s the definition from Wikipedia:
“Network neutrality (also net neutrality, Internet neutrality) is a principle that advocates government regulation of Internet service providers, preventing ISPs from restricting consumers’ access to networks that participate in the Internet. Specifically, network neutrality would prevent restrictions on content, sites, platforms, types of equipment that may be attached, and modes of communication. Network owners can’t interfere with content, applications, services, and devices of users’ choice and remains open to all users and uses.”

The article is terribly poor. Not only is there no attempt to establish any link between censorship and the possibility of a premium / economy service but you then go on to describe one of the biggest threats as over regulation, the very thing you are demanding.

I’m sure you have points to make given the passion of the article on a rather dry subject but a degree of coherence would help.

Is this the same Tom Chivers who writes for the Torygraph? Yes, it is.

No, it’s a different Chivers.

@Falco,
One very timely link between the two is the WCIT conference of the UN’s International Telecommunications Union, which started yesterday in Dubai.
The body is debating proposals to regulate the Net, and there’s a bit of an unholy alliance between sinister governments who want the UN to legitimise and make easier the kind of censorship and monitoring Tom’s talking about here, and ailing telcos who want sender-pays to help wring a bit of cash out of international Internet traffic (though for developing countries this could kill the goose as developing country ARPU on many international services isn’t worth the sender paying, so could wreck those countries’ access to info and markets).
More here: http://touchstoneblog.org.uk/2012/11/stop-the-net-grab-itus-confused-and-dangerous-plans-to-regulate-internet/

We need only look to our own shores to see how net neutrality, the idea that all information online is equal and free from interference, is under threat

Which is a rubbish idea, from a purely network management perspective. For instance:
email traffic: doesn’t need particularly high bandwidth, unless you’re sending huge attachments, and connection latency is almost irrelevant.
video downloads/streams: high bandwidth needed, but connection latency isn’t a big deal
online gaming: doesn’t usually need high bandwidth, but often needs very low latency
voice-over-IP: low-ish latency and decent bandwidth both required

So, from the point of view of providing a network service which works well for more than one type of application (assuming you don’t have the money to provide expensive high bandwidth low latency connections for everything…), you need to distinguish the types of traffic and give them different network priorities.

Which is not to say that government censorship or a less formal corporate equivalent are good things – but there needs to be a better proposed solution than an unworkable “all data should receive identical treatment”.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. ?

    Net neutrality: why it’s important and we should campaign on it http://t.co/R9YiPYVV via @libcon

  2. Jason Brickley

    Net neutrality: why it’s important and we should campaign on it http://t.co/OIF3nMsZ

  3. leftlinks

    Liberal Conspiracy – Net neutrality: why it’s important and we should campaign on it http://t.co/bCa6GEha

  4. Tom Chivers

    My article on Syria's web blackout and net neutrality for @libcon http://t.co/2FHyLPOw

  5. Tom Chivers

    After a plot to bring @LibCon down, my article on #Syria's web blackout and #netneutrality is back online! http://t.co/GiL6PNIX

  6. Labour at Bath Spa

    After a plot to bring @LibCon down, my article on #Syria's web blackout and #netneutrality is back online! http://t.co/GiL6PNIX

  7. Hadleigh Roberts

    After a plot to bring @LibCon down, my article on #Syria's web blackout and #netneutrality is back online! http://t.co/GiL6PNIX

  8. Hadleigh Roberts

    IT'S THE ARTICLE SYRIA TRIED TO BLOCK http://t.co/8pgQ5NIa From @TMChivers

  9. Hadleigh Roberts

    @LukeAFarley BUT WAS IT WRITTEN BY @TMChivers LIKE THIS ONE? http://t.co/EbiUQpAY

  10. Kate Maudsley

    IT'S THE ARTICLE SYRIA TRIED TO BLOCK http://t.co/8pgQ5NIa From @TMChivers

  11. Tom Chivers

    IT'S THE ARTICLE SYRIA TRIED TO BLOCK http://t.co/8pgQ5NIa From @TMChivers

  12. Dwayne Winseck

    Wow, like the quality & tone of this Brit pc on #NetNeutrality & why it matters for everybody, as a communication right http://t.co/6Z3kBpQP

  13. Org9

    Wow, like the quality & tone of this Brit pc on #NetNeutrality & why it matters for everybody, as a communication right http://t.co/6Z3kBpQP

  14. Luke Farley

    For those who didn't read it yesterday, here's @TMChivers' excellent piece on #NetNeutrality in @libcon http://t.co/fyqJnCNm

  15. Tom Chivers

    For those who didn't read it yesterday, here's @TMChivers' excellent piece on #NetNeutrality in @libcon http://t.co/fyqJnCNm

  16. Mark Chivers

    Net neutrality: why it’s important and we should campaign on it | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/SnPvwhkR via @libcon

  17. Tom Chivers

    "@MarksLarks Internet off switch in 61 countries http://t.co/GTBZ9XPz" My take on Syria switch in use & #netneutrality http://t.co/GiL6PNIX





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