Net Neutrality: Give us your money, or the data gets it

As with many issues, Net Neutrality is one where I’m somewhere in the middle. Or at least, I was, until Ed Vaizey spoke on the topic yesterday. Prior to that, I would have said I was not a fan of the more extreme “you must never prioritise or block traffic” arguments, simply because in the real world they are not practical.

For example, if my network is subject to a denial of service attack, clearly that traffic is going to get pushed into a black hole. Along similar lines, if I find a zombie machine on my network taking part in an attack or spreading viruses, I might cut that machine off or limit it’s traffic. Even better, as occasionally happens, we hit paydirt and find one of the bad guy’s command and control nodes and take it down, usually after some forensics to get a list of infected machines.

Those are clear-cut cases, but it gets more subtle. During times of peak demand, particularly unexpected demand such as 9/11, networks can become overloaded. Whilst it’s entirely possible to just ignore this and give everyone bad service to all destinations, it’s sensible to try to limit some of the less urgent traffic. So, anything that looks like it might be a routine overnight backup of a PC or Peer-to-peer file sharing traffic such as BitTorrent is going to be lower priority than someone checking out the BBC News web site for example. (Some providers do this all the time, and tend to get in trouble for it)

Even outside of network engineering, we already have a significant amount of “Quality of Service”, run by DSL providers such as BT. Depending on the type of line you order – “Business”, “Office”, “Premium” or similar names are often applied – it’s likely that your traffic will be prioritised over a simple Home user. That’s quite reasonable, given that office users pay more. In fact, it can keep down the price of your home DSL because providers can make their money on business users during the day. With some providers, home users, who will use the network more at night, are just using up capacity that’s already been paid for.

So you’d I’d have thought I’d be on Vaizey’s side, but his excessively market liberal tone has just pushed me further towards thinking we need some kind of regulation. There is clearly an increasing commercial pressure to turn the tools we use to keep the internet running into a source of profit, but not the kind of commercial pressure that helps consumers and keeps prices down and choice up.

He’s proposing no regulation, besides forcing ISPs to publish their policies. I see this as a failure on two counts. Firstly, I do not want to have to publish steps I take against botnets and other sources of evil traffic, even in outline, because it makes their lives easier. They already have some idea what we do, but there is no reason to confirm it. There’s also various underground “good guy” groups where we share information on what’s going on. If we’re forced to reveal what we get up to, those groups in other countries are going to be less willing to share data with us.

Secondly, I doubt people are going to base their buying decisions on published data on how ISPs prioritise data. Instead, they’ll base it on adverts on the TV and cost. The big ISPs, such as Virgin and BT, can quite happily go to the BBC and say “Stand and deliver! Give us some money, or your internet data gets it!”. If the BBC, or any other large organisation they think is good for some money, refuse to pay up then the BBC web site slows down compared to other sites or iPlayer stops working properly. Because the user’s mate down the street has the same problem, it looks like it’s a BBC problem, not their ISP being Evil.

But smaller service providers can’t do that – if a small player such as myself with a user count measured not in millions but tens or low hundreds of thousands tries it on, the content providers will tell us where we can stick it. Because only a small number of users have a problem, and they’re all on our services, the problem appears to the end users to be with us. (Which really is where it is, as we’d be the ones doing the traffic shaping!)

So we could end up promoting monopolistic behaviour in the market. Large providers will be able to cut their prices as they’ve discovered a new revenue stream from the content providers. For those end-users not wanting to be subject to this, they’ll find themselves paying increasing prices as small providers will shrink and lose economies of scale.

It’s interesting to note how the press is running this. Today’s Metro has an anti-Vaizey, pro-Neutrality article in it and the BBC also takes a similar line as there does not seem to be an appetite amongst the content producers to pay to prioritise their traffic over their competitors. It’s the really big providers that want this because they see a source of revenue for no additional cost.

I fail to see, as Vaizey postulates, how this will increase innovation in the market.

P.S. For those of you in the UK, there’s an Early Day Motion tabled by Tom Watson you can encourage your MP to sign.


  1. How about very minimalist regulations, saying that users can pay for priority service (as you suggest above) but content providers cannot be asked to pay (or allowed to pay) for priority?

    1. That’s the level of intervention I’d favour, yes, although figuring out who is a “content provider” in a legislative way is fraught with difficulties. (It’s entirely possible to host a web site on the end of a broadband line, for example, even if it’s a bad idea in practice)

      In an ideal world, it might be sufficient to threaten large service providers with this or more heavy handed regulation if they do try it on. However, with Vaizey in charge that would clearly be an empty threat!

      1. We go under various names, but “Hotchilli” and “Maxima” are two we trade under most commonly. We don’t typically sell direct to end users, but via resellers, so you probably won’t have heard of us.

        Usual disclaimers apply, opinion is my own etc, etc which is why I don’t mention them by name very often.

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