The US internet has been mourning recently the announcement by that-guy-who-everyone-hates-at-the-office-but-thinks-he’s-the-cool-boss, Ajit Pai, of the forthcoming death of Net Neutrality regulations in the USA, and I thought it would be timely to write a little about what that means for New Zealand, what the state of the net is here, and broadly what Net Neutrality is and what it aims to prevent.
Most of you who aren’t tech geeks will only be familiar with Net Neutrality through a certain comedy show run by John Oliver, soon to be known as Chiwetel Ejiofor‘s parrot in the forthcoming Lion King live action reboot. If you haven’t watched all of his Obama-era and Trump-era commentary on the issue, it’s both informative and an interesting study in how differently Democrats and Republicans in the US respond to public outcry over their policies, too. I’ve collected them into a playlist for your viewing pleasure, favouring the ones from the official channel where possible:
So for those of you not enjoying three quarters of an hour of entertaining rants containing accusations of committee chairmen being dingo babysitters and comically oversized mugs, let’s have a look at what Net Neutrality actually means.
Broadly, it’s the principle that ISPs shouldn’t discriminate their speed of delivery or artificially block services or charge extra based on what type of traffic is going through their internet service, (eg. a packet of data for an email is treated the same as a video is treated the same as a BitTorrent download) and that ISPs also shouldn’t discriminate by which internet site that traffic originates from, at least so long as the website isn’t involved in an illegal activity.
In the worst case, the USA’s repeal could lead to ISPs overseas trying to route around US providers, if they’re seen as treating international traffic unfairly, but it’s also possible it won’t have any effect on those of us overseas. Only time will tell on that issue, but it’s sorta like consciously deciding to go out without sunscreen from now on: maybe nothing will happen, maybe you’ll develop a cancerous growth that your body has to work around. Only time will tell.
This issue, for those actually informed on it, is a rare confluence of agreement from the Left and Right of the political sphere- right-wing voters like Net Neutrality as a solution because it enforces a broadly libertarian market model on the internet, where once-small businesses like eBay can grow up into giant corporate monsters based purely on the success of their approach, and left-wing voters like it because it’s the government regulating to say that corporate ISPs can’t do the regulating of the internet on the sly without us voting for it.
Wait, I hear some of you saying, ISPs are regulating the internet? Oh yes, the featured image is from a Chilean mobile internet provider, who have no net neutrality regulations, offering “selective rating” for sites, that is, offering you cheap broadband data so long as you use it on a particular set of sites, such as Youtube. This is effectively discounting you for visiting preferred sites- probably not due to kickbacks from those sites, but rather because the routing is simple for them and it will help them manage traffic on their network more cheaply if people are re-using content they’ve been able to cache locally.
There are several practices advocates of Net Neutrality want the government to set strict regulations on when they are allowed or not, to prevent this kind of de-facto traffic steering. The US regulations about to be repealed prevented three of these activities:
So, do we do any of those things in New Zealand? Yes and no, but mostly, yes. We don’t have any Net Neutrality regulations at all in New Zealand, but blocking at least is restricted to illegal content in New Zealand, and that mostly means really illegal, like child pornography. We have thus-far avoided calls for an internet filter like in Australia. And unlike in the USA, there’s no obvious examples of ISPs blackmailing other businesses to get favourable deals like there is with Comcast and Netflix, but that’s more because our audience numbers are generally too small to make such threats credible even to large sites, so at least we don’t have to worry about that kind of shake-down.
But throttling users, instead of websites, is absolutely a norm in New Zealand, mostly by type of traffic. Spark famously throttled (slowed down) connections to customers who are observed using BitTorrent protocols to download files. Their argument is that torrenters are frequently heavy downloaders, which is sometimes true, and that these people stress their infrastructure out of proportion to how much they pay for their service. But you might be a torrenter without even realizing- several popular internet-based games like World of Warcraft default to using torrents to deliver frequent large patches, whose download size is normally measured in gigabytes.
But if that gamer is compared with a heavy user of YouTube, who deliver high-quality video, they might actually be a less heavy user if all they do is play games after work- just an average of ten minutes of 720p video a day on YouTube will make up for torrenting a single World of Warcraft patch every month, and someone watching an hour or two of YouTube videos a day at high resolutions like that is going to be using a comparable amount of bandwidth to any gamer- this argument that you can’t tell even a heavy user by type of traffic is one of Net Neutrality’s key points, and honestly, why not just throttle heavy users, or incentivize them towards more expensive plans that help you expand your infrastructure? It’s a lazy business model, and discriminates against customers purely for their choice of data protocol.
Crucially, advocates don’t argue that you can’t charge by data usage- metred plans like in New Zealand are explicitly permitted, although they would have bones to pick with a common practice among many New Zealand plans, called zero-rating. If you’ve ever been on a bandwidth-limited plan, zero-rating refers to those plans where there are certain sites or categories of sites (such as “those hosted in New Zealand”) that you can visit without it counting towards your metred bandwidth. This is a more insidious type of violation of Net Neutrality, where they get you to think you’re getting a special deal to buy into it: they’re not charging you for favourable access to YouTube, or Steam, or Facebook, they’re giving you “free” bandwidth to those sites. This is absolutely discrimination between sites, and a form of traffic-shaping that would be illegal under well-considered Open Internet regulations.
Critics of Net Neutrality claim that it stifles investment in internet infrastructure, but there’s no real evidence they’re right. Infrastructure investment trends generally continue as before when Open Internet rules are implemented or repealed, and most large pushes in internet infrastructure are led by governments now, not private business. If anything, we should be levying ISPs that don’t fund their own infrastructure to pay for projects like rural broadband.
With a new government, you might expect a new approach on this, but both Amy Adams, Simon Bridges, and Clare Curran have had rather mixed records on this issue, with the National ministers saying positive things but being incredibly hands-off for the industry. Clare Curran, while she lobbied for a debate on this issue in late 2014, has also shown she doesn’t understand or is willing to compromise on its principles with a leaked Digital Content Levy proposal earlier in that year, essentially wanting to charge internet users to pay subsidies for private news companies selected by the government, rather than simply extending public media creation instead. One of the big points of Net Neutrality is that neither the government nor ISPs are supposed to pick winners, and we should all hope Minister Curran has changed her tune since 2014, and sees the virtue of finding solutions to funding news other than simple subsidies of private outlets.
If we should take anything from a rank authoritarian like Trump and his henchman Ajit Pai repealing similar policies in the US, it’s that we should strongly consider a local version of the Open Internet rules in New Zealand if we want to be the small-l liberal democracy that our proclaimed values would suggest we want.