Smoking Gun on Network Neutrality

A number of us have been arguing for a while that network owners such as cable and telephone companies should not be allowed to destroy the open business and innovation ecosystem of the Internet. Specifically, we’ve called for “Net Neutrality” — the idea that customers should be able to use any device, visit any site, access any service, and view any content they choose on the network.

With the move from narrowband to broadband networks and the convergence of telecom and digital media with the data, this promises to be one of the key policy battles that will shape the future of the Net. It’s especially significant in light of the growth of voice over IP. Carriers that see VOIP as a competitive threat can be expected to do everything they can to keep it off their broadband networks.

The Net Neutrality concept has gradually gained steam in recent years. Former FCC Chairman Michael Powell advocated similar principles in his “Four Freedoms” speech in early 2004, and the full FCC recently adopted a “policy statement” along similar lines. Unfortunately, neither of these statements had any binding force. And the FCC’s recent pronouncement was full of caveats and limitations. As Susan Crawford notes, several tech companies have been lobbying for enforceable Net Neutrality rules in the forthcoming rewrite of US telecom laws.

All along, carriers have been making the argument that Net Neutrality rules are unnecessary. Where’s the evidence, they ask? What incentive would we have for hurting our own customers?

So then, what to make of this press release from Verso, announcing “Carrier Grade Skype Filtering Technology”? Here’s how Verso, a network equipment manufacturer, is pitching its product:

“This new application provides the most comprehensive array of optimization and content management options currently available for cable operators and internet protocol service providers seeking to selectively disable undesirable network traffic and improve service levels on their networks. Applications such as Skype, Peer-2-Peer (P2P) messaging, streaming media and instant messaging increasingly cause congestion on service provider networks and interrupt or degrade service for other critical applications.”

So Skype is “undesirable” traffic, along with instant messaging and streaming media? Given data from Cachelogic suggesting that roughly half the traffic on the global Internet is peer-to-peer video file transfers, the argument that Skype VOIP traffic (which uses far less bandwidth) is causing congestion is a red herring.

A more revealing quote comes later in the press release:

“This traffic runs outside the traditional carrier revenue generation models and is therefore highly undesirable for them.”

In other words, Skype VOIP traffic is undesireable to broadband network operators because it poses a competitive threat. Verso’s solution allows those operators to filter, degrade, or block that competitive traffic, leveraging their control of the network.

The Verso announcement calls to mind a Cisco white paper published several years ago for cable broadband service providers. It walked through how Cisco gear could be used to slow down or block access to Websites that weren’t business partners of the cable companies. I guess things haven’t changed.

Companies like Cisco and Verso don’t create these products for their own enjoyment — they do so because they believe their customers (the cable and telephone companies) want the ability to block innovations that may threaten their competitive position.

The scary thing is that, if equipment like the Verso box is deployed in the network, users won’t realize what’s really happening. They’ll notice Skype isn’t working as well as it used to, and perhaps isn’t allowing them to connect at all. In all likelihood, they’ll assume Skype is the problem, not their broadband provider. The only way to prevent this from happening is to have affirmative legal pronouncements safeguarding the open Internet.