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Net Neutrality and New Zealand

Written By: - Date published: 10:00 am, November 26th, 2017 - 42 comments
Categories: business, capitalism, discrimination, internet - Tags: ,

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:

  • Blocking: Lawful content must be accessible.
  • Throttling: Lawful content cannot be deliberately slowed down. (but may be delivered slowly incidentally due to overall network congestion)
  • Paid prioritisation: No specific content may be prioritized in exchange for any sort of consideration. (ie. you can’t bribe ISPs to speed up your website, even if your bribe is in favours rather than cash)

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.

42 comments on “Net Neutrality and New Zealand ”

  1. One Anonymous Bloke 1

    Thanks for this Matthew. You just answered all the questions I was wondering about 🙂

    • Carolyn_Nth 1.1

      yep. Very clear an informative.

      ISPs should be neutral providers of a service, like water or electricity.

      I do not like the move to have IPs also linked to online content providers – eg netflix, sky TV, or whatever.

      • Which means that ISPs and other essential services like water and electricity should be government provided services.

        • Matthew Whitehead 1.1.1.1

          Or at least that they should face reasonable government regulations. And all Open Internet regulations do is essentially say “corporations can’t make up their own regulations,” which is the most light-touch regulation possible.

          • Draco T Bastard 1.1.1.1.1

            Or at least that they should face reasonable government regulations.

            That’s the most inefficient way to do it as it requires more regulation and bureaucrats to enforce those regulations.

            It really is much easier and thus cheaper to simply have the government do it through a government department.

            That will have the private sector whinging that they’re not making a profit from it which is how we got privatisation in the first place.

            • Matthew Whitehead 1.1.1.1.1.1

              Oh, I agree, I’m just saying starting with Open Internet rules gives us a base that even National should agree with, so we get at least that much next time National gets in power even if we can’t convince them to keep government ownership of internet infrastructure.

        • CLEANGREEN 1.1.1.2

          Yep Draco,

          Alll our “essential services must be owned and operated exclussively by our Government.”

          Reason; “for the people, – by the people” as used to be everywhere a stable country and society operates and lives.

          leaving our life sustaining services to private companies is so fucking dumb it is so suicidal.

  2. RC 2

    Facebook, Youtube, Netflicks and Google don’t deserve a free lunch at the consumers expense.

    • joe90 2.1

      It’s a present to the telecos who will get to profit from both ends, content providers like Facebook, Youtube, Netflicks and Google will pay them to carry their wares and consumers will pay them more for services they’re already providing.

    • Matthew Whitehead 2.2

      And they don’t get one. Sites pay for hosting the same way consumers pay for ISPs. (even if you build your own servers, you still have to pay an ISP for the access to upload the relevant information to visitors) There is no free lunch there, they pay for their access to the information superhighway, and even without Net Neutrality in New Zealand, because our ISPs are small and don’t act like Mafiosi, none of them have proposed charging large sites in order not to throttle them, or in order to get them zero-rated. Fortunately.

      Have you ever even made your own website? I have, and I paid for hosting when I did it.

      • piper 2.2.1

        Capitalism free market,what a social care.

        • piper 2.2.1.1

          Possible,who should own the countries telecommunication lines,corporation profit exploiters,or state held social intrest.

          • Matthew Whitehead 2.2.1.1.1

            I think it’s absolutely legitimate for the government to own telecommunications infrastructure under an SoE that has a primarily pro-social purpose, and only generates profit as a secondary concern, but it would require strong public support during National administrations to avoid it being privatized.

  3. Good post I learned a lot thanks. i feel I undéstand the main points now. These are the apparent new battlelines – not between left or right but the corporations or the people. I miss the bad old days sometimes.

    • Matthew Whitehead 3.1

      The key thing to remember on Net Neutrality is that the corporations are already shaping local traffic with practices like zero-rating, so it’s not a choice of if the internet is regulated, like corporate stooges claim, it’s a choice of whether we let corporations do the regulating like they are now, or ask the government to do it. I think the choice is obvious that it’s better to have the government ban them from regulating the internet on their own, but to keep their own regulations relatively light-touch beyond that. Road builders shouldn’t be the ones playing traffic cop, to coin a metaphor.

      The Right won’t always get onside if we don’t message it in their terms- see Trump for an example, he’s fallen for completely false talking points from large telcos in the US who are outright lying about the impacts of Net Neutrality. But this issue is basically built for messaging well to right-wing voters: We want a libertarian internet where your individual freedom not to be manipulated is preserved no matter what ISP you choose to buy your services from, so that you can freely choose based on quality and speed. This is the sort of stuff they love.

  4. RedBaronCV 4

    Interesting post Matthew . Thank you.
    Now is it possible , since I believe that most of out offshore content comes down a limited number of cables, for us to impose net neutrality as it on shores by slowing down the fast downloads and amping up the slow ones so that we here consume everything at the same speed?? (dead slow??)

    • If we put in place good Net Neutrality laws and upped the number of connections to the rest of the world (The one cable we have isn’t anywhere near overloaded BTW) we might actually get a large number of those content providers looking for hosting here (well, at least the ones that aren’t dependent upon low ping).

      • Matthew Whitehead 4.1.1

        Yeah, Draco’s right on the facts here. Strong Open Internet protections and mild heat in New Zealand would make us an excellent choice for datacentre hosting, and migrating local sites to local datacentres would not only speed up load times for local audiences, it would likely balance out the load on our and Australia’s cable to America a lot better.

        I actually submitted on JK’s plan for “fibre to the doorway,” pointing out that actually running fibre to the street level and then spending the savings on not running it to your home on subsidizing local datacentres and migrating our websites to them would be a much cheaper way of reducing local load times, but alas, it wasn’t seriously considered.

  5. Critics of Net Neutrality claim that it stifles investment in internet infrastructure, but there’s no real evidence they’re right.

    The one thing I have seen stifle telecommunications infrastructure is privatisation. Telecom, once privatised, massively reduced investment in the network and started pulling out huge amounts of profit instead.

    I’m pretty sure that the same reasoning will apply to the removal of Net Neutrality in the US. The ISPs will use it to maximise profits rather than invest in the infrastructure. Infrastructure is expensive, inventing new charging plans is relatively cheap.

    …and most large pushes in internet infrastructure are led by governments now, not private business.

    As we found out here in NZ when the government had to step in to pay for the necessary network upgrades. So, we paid for the new owners massive profits and then we paid them even more to get the infrastructure that we needed.

    Telecom is a great example of how privatisation does the exact opposite of what the neo-loberal’s told us would happen.

    • Matthew Whitehead 5.1

      Yeah, I didn’t want to get into infrastructure investment in detail because there’s literally no evidence backing up their case on that, so I figured a short acknowledgement of their position and that it’s objectively wrong was enough, given it’s already a long post.

  6. Ad 6

    At its base the Federal Communications Commission is seeking to redefine the internet providers as delivering “information services,” as opposed to “telecommunications services”.

    The resulting definition of broadband as enabling users to generate, store, transform, and process their data is absurd. It is like saying your phone is a pizzeria because you can use it to order a pizza. It is like saying that because you build a road, you are also building all the businesses along that road.

    It is edge providers like Wikipedia, Dropbox, and even simple websites like TechCrunch that provide the services users request; it is ISPs that carry that data, with no change in form, between users and those edge providers. The FCC rejects this fundamental idea and substitutes a convenient fiction that upholds its current ambition to reclassify broadband. There is a semblance of plausibility to all this, but only because of precedents set in times when the internet looked very different.

    I don’t really care about what Clare Curran thinks because the US ISP providers will simply continue to dominate New Zealand services, as will by proxy the FCC.

    https://www.eff.org/document/internet-engineers-commentsfcc-nn

    I would like to hear from LPrent however on how this change might affect The Standard in future.

    • Matthew Whitehead 6.1

      The US ISPs can only guarantee an effect on our access to content hosted in the US, so any effect of the NN repeal in the US is likely to be restricted to US content. This is bad news because even kiwis are likely accessing US servers for most of our content, unless you stay off social media, YouTube, or restrict your online gaming to Path of the Exile. 😉

      As for how they’re classified in the USA- yes, the redefinition away from Title II is absurd, but of course, this is because the ISPs hate Title II protections. Which is ironic, because the FCC only considered doing them because Comcast sued to remove the Obama administration’s earlier Open Internet rules!

      The US ISPs could try to shake down international traffic in a world where they’re not regulated by any protections. But they’d essentially be risking international ISPs routing around them, which is the “giving the internet cancer” scenario I was talking about earlier. It only works so well because theoretically everyone is connected to everyone else, so my hope is that they’ll stick to shaking down local content until Trump is de-elected in 2020. (which, from early backlash in state elections in the USA, looks relatively likely)

      • Ad 6.1.1

        I am resoundingly pessimistic that a change in US President would reverse this deregulation.

        Those ISPs dominate much of the world’s traffic, and are so powerful as Democrat donors, that they will find a way around any proposal (either through to bring it back to neutral.

        I remember reading Habermas back in the day thinking that the internet was going to revolutionize citizenship and the public sphere. (Sigh).

        Whereas what we have left after this FCC move, in just a short time, is a few islands of state funded and regulated broadcasting, with the rest being five companies across the world delivering puppies, porn, sport, and shopping.

        • Matthew Whitehead 6.1.1.1

          You’re certainly right that it’s not an automatic win. It depends who we’d get instead, and whether they’d been bribed on the issue of telecommuncations. If the democratic nominee is Kamala Harris, who seems to be set up to be the next Hillary Clinton in terms of a democrat bought and paid for by big business, then I’m probably with you.

          If we get Elizabeth Warren or even another Bernie Sanders run, then new Open Internet rules or a reinstatement of the old ones are totally on the table.

          I wouldn’t rule out other countries continuing to provide access to diverse content through an open internet even if the US no longer can. What we would lose is access to is small businesses run through the internet that are situated in the US, or innovative solo artists funded through avenues like Patreon, as their access to platforms inevitably dries up as ISPs try to set up encrusted digital platforms like we have in, say, the Television space.

          This is the other possibility is that the US’ repeal also causes a counter-reaction accross the world and most of the other siginificant countries commit or re-commit to an open internet, meaning that we write off the US’ content as gone, and route around them if their ISPs try any… “creative rules” in our access to other countries. This isn’t ideal, but it’s probably the best we’ll get if the US never reinstates open internet rules.

  7. eco maori 7

    Yes I think that the gargantuan multi nation net companys should help pay for the hard ware that they make billions off. The farm has no broadband Internet why’s that because these companies service providers and content providers only concern is $$$$$$$$$$ and not to provide a cost-effective service to all. I think that if we don’t get fiber Internet services that there provider companies should provide cheaper wireless service to the rural people.
    My moko school has school work programmes delivered by the Internet and because the price to get Internet is to dear my mokos miss out as many rural moko will miss out on a very important part of there education!!!!!!! Ka pai

    • Matthew Whitehead 7.1

      They actually already do pay to serve us content, the difficulty is that because the internet is global, they’re only paying companies in whatever countries they choose to host their website in. This means that the US ISPs get no slice of the money if consumers want to access sites hosted overseas, and likewise for NZ ISPs. They just get the money from us, the consumers, if we choose never to visit any local content.

      If we want to encourage better local internet infrastructure, our best bet is probably to implement a Minimum Investment Levy, where ISPs that are spending under a certain percentage of their revenue on infrastructure investment have to pay a levy per connection to the government, to be used for internet infrastructure only. (although because the term “internet infrastructure” is purpose-agnostic, you could equally use it to set up local hosting for local websites or even big multi-national websites like Facebook or Twitter, instead of just on laying cable or deploying wireless internet towers, moving our content to be local to us wherever possible. IMO this is absolutely a good use of money, especially as it in-sources jobs to New Zealand)

      We do similar things with RUCs and petrol taxes, so the main difference would be that the companies can get exempted if they’re already doing their own private investment at a reasonable rate, which seems perfectly fair. It would probably result in the cost being passed on to the consumer, but once the first projects were completed, it’d probably be worthwhile because it would likely measurably increase the speed and quality of our browsing experience, especially in rural areas where ISPs are highly unlikely to invest on their own.

  8. savenz 8

    Excellent post MATTHEW WHITEHEAD. Agree with it 100%

    • CLEANGREEN 8.1

      Thanks Matthew 100% informative there.

      Well done President Donald Trump.

      These web bandits want our last dollar, our blood, the evil buggers they are.

      • Matthew Whitehead 8.1.1

        Huh? In case I wasn’t clear, I think it’s obvious from this repeal that Trump is supporting the “web bandits,” Cleangreen, but I think he’s doing this because he has brought the spin of large cable company ISPs that Net Neutrality is some sort of conspiracy to help liberal media. Thankfully Net Neutrality isn’t considered a partisan issue yet in New Zealand, and I hope it never will be- ideally we should have a political consensus that even includes New Zealand First that keeping anyone from interfering with the democratic and open nature of the Internet is a good idea.

        • cleangreen 8.1.1.1

          Sorry Matthew I missed adding sarc’ there next to the Trump bit.

          What was the position of dem’s on Net Neutality?

          Seems they didn’t want it stopped either?

          We all want the internet kept open free unihindered as you say.

  9. Tracey 9

    GREAT post and comments. Learned heaps. Thanks

  10. Gareth 10

    You say that we have avoided calls for an internet filter like Australias, but we do have an internet filter in NZ. It’s run by DIA and has been up and running since 2010 and most ISPs are signed up to it.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_censorship_in_New_Zealand

    • Matthew Whitehead 10.1

      As I think I mentioned in the post, we don’t have a filter for legal content, Gareth. (Did I forget to qualify that I was talking about legal content in a subsequent mention, or something? If so, my bad, it can be difficult to keep track of a whole post and make it as clear as I like, but I try my best to be thorough) We block child pornography, but I to some extent agree with the FCC’s rules that blocking criminal content is reasonable. (At least, for serious crimes where blocking content is an effective or necessary step to stop commission of those crimes- such as blocking child pornography to prevent paedophilia. No need to block sites with videos of jaywalking or something) While technically that may be a censorship regime, it’s one that’s pretty clear-cut and is absolutely justifiable from a policy perspective. My understanding is that Australia’s regime goes a lot further than just blocking child pornography- or am I wrong?

      • Gareth 10.1.1

        We don’t know if we have a filter for legal content. The DIA does not disclose it’s rules for blocking websites. It does not disclose a list of blocked websites. The only way you can find out if the New Zealand Internet Filter is blocking a website is to try to access it and see if you get the DIA message. If you find a website that is blocked which you think is incorrectly blocked, there is no formal channel to challenge the decision to block it.

        The public justification for it is illegal content and child pornography is the most commonly raised example.

        FWIW I agree that child pornography should be blocked, but I don’t like that there are no checks, no remedys, just a secret list of websites that you’re not allowed to know about. I would like to see some sort of oversight and a system for getting incorrectly blocked sites unblocked.

        Australia’s system has had more public or leaked examples given of blocked sites that you wouldn’t normally expect to be blocked. New Zealand’s system has been very quiet and no-one talks about it except to say “oh, it’s about stopping child porn”. Other than that, I can’t find much difference since you can’t get any official details about either system.

  11. Paul Campbell 11

    I think the best way to think of it is that like we’ve long done with the telephone company(s) we the public make a bargain – “you’re a ‘common carrier’, you promise to not tamper with the content that is communicated over you hardware, and we promise to not hold you responsible for content that may break the law”.

    So we let ISPs choose – be a common carrier and treat every packet identically, or choose to mess with just one of them and be responsible for all the the content that passes through your pipes, be it child porn, lawsuits by customers being harassed (or customers harassing), lawsuits from people hurt by terrorists downloading bomb making instructions, etc etc

    It’s like when Fox buys your local paper they can either print just the facts, or they can editorialise. But if they editorialise they are responsible for the behaviour of all the gun nut crazies they whip in to a frenzy. If they just print the facts they can say in court “we just print the facts ma’am”, it’s all true

    • Matthew Whitehead 11.1

      I think it wouldn’t be a problem to allow some ISPs to tinker with connections IF and ONLY IF:
      * They had to advertise any practices they engage in that violate Net Neutrality, and the fact that it is not an Open Internet practice, and they need to do so without hiding it in their terms and conditions where people will just ignore it.
      * There was at least one ISP that stuck to the net neutrality rules in all or almost all locations, or some sort of state-sponsored competitor SoE to ensure there was an open internet option.

      However, I honestly don’t think that the New Zealand market is large enough to make that a viable option in terms of making sure people all around the country have access to an ISP that doesn’t interfere with their traffic. It’s already the case that the ones with the best coverage are the worst violators of Net Neutrality.

  12. infused 12

    It’s already here with Vodafone.

    • joe90 12.1

      How is Vodafone’s option to purchase unlimited mobile data different to my broadband data options?.

      • Matthew Whitehead 12.1.1

        I believe Infused is referring to Vodafone being a practitioner of zero-rating (I cover in the post how this violates net neutrality, it’s basically traffic shaping through giveaways instead of traffic shaping through extra fees or slow service) on its limited bandwidth plans, as I used to be a customer of theirs before they offered unlimited broadband. (this was back when they were still TelstraClear, although they had already started being a bad ISP by that stage)

        I didn’t explicitly include that in the post because I hadn’t recently confirmed that they still did it, and didn’t want to call out any ISPs about practices they might have stopped. (I figured it was still likely that they did, and that commenters would be keen to bring up anything I missed, so thanks to Infused.)

        • wizz 12.1.1.1

          If I understand correctly, it looks to me like Vodafone does still practice zero-rating by offering their new mobile Pass plans which allow connection to some social, streaming and music media applications/sites without it impacting your overall data plan usage: https://www.vodafone.co.nz/pass/

  13. Sparky 13

    This is one I have been following for a long long time and before anyone claims its “all Trump” this started long before he came to office. I’d also ask where the “left” is in US politics? As one astute commentator put it the Dems have taken the place of the Republicans who in turn have moved even further to the right.

    In any case the only reason we still have net neutrality is the collective outrage of ordinary people who have been pushing back.Its got sweet FA to do with politicians manning the barricades.

    That said I’d say its inevitable that big business will as per usual get their way. I think Kim Dotcoms idea of a new alternative to the current internet controlled by end users is a good one because the current internet is become an over regulated commercial monstrosity with corporate heavies on every digital corner trying to dictate every aspect of what we see, how we see it and of course, at what price.

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