net neutrality, CLA session summary

After seeing only a handful of people at CLA’s 2009 conference session 511E “Net Neutrality and What it means for Libraries”, I realised that we (librarians) have a challenge on our hands: not enough people know/care about net neutrality. Danielle Dennie and Alex Guindon of Concordia University Libraries delivered excellent, current information during their session. The following are some key points from the session:

  • Network neutrality was first defined by Tim Wu. The idea is that communication and transport networks should be neutral is based on the idea of common carriers.

  • Legal benefits: liability protection—not responsible for illegal content transmitted; and public right of way to provide their service.

  • Obligations: that they must carry all people or content indiscriminately, also interconnection and reasonable price for access.

  • Canada’s telecommunications act.

    • CRTC has decided to intervene as little as possible in the area of retail internet services.

    • Public hearings will be held in July.

  • Brand X decision: in 2005, US Supreme Court confirmed that cable companies are info services and not telecommunication services.

  • Technological aspects:

    • Info on the net is transmitted in data packets.

    • Original design was TCP/IP, a “dumb” network. Essentially was only meant to route data packs. Nodes make no judgment on the data.

    • Packets are transmitted:

      • FIFO: first in first out

      • Best effort: no guarantee that data is delivered.  Some packets are dropped. Speed depends on network traffic.

  • Several authors claim that the internet has not been neutral for a long time.

  • Graham Longford presents 2 types of discrimination

    • Content discrimination:

      • Preferred content arrangements: some content only accessible via specific ISPs.

      • Access tiering and transmission tariffs: ISPs want to apply additional charges to content providers and users for faster lanes.

      • Content blocking, filtering and deep packet inspection (DPI): blocking by address or by looking at actual contents. Famous case where TELUS blocked their workers union’s website during a strike. Clear case of censorship and discrimination.

      • Distributed computing: distributed network of local servers to cache high-demand pages.

    • Protocol and application discrimination (network management):

      • Port blocking.

      • Traffic shaping/traffic prioritization.

      • Quality of service enhancements (QoS).

  • Net neutrality debate

    • For net neutrality:

      • Is broadband an essential utility? If you answer yes, it has to be protected.

      • Innovation was made possible because it was a neutral medium. More likely to come from small businesses or individuals than from large firms.

      • Traffic management is not efficient and ends up being more costly than the investment in infrastructure.

      • Incumbent can artificially slow down traffic to convince nonusers to pay more for a quality of service enhancements.

    • Against net neutrality:

      • Content providers (like Google and other biggies) have a free ride. They benefit from the existing networks without having to pay.

      • Network innovation is best served by market solutions.

      • Legislation is inefficient and costly.

      • New income sources are needed for network upgrade (investment in the last-mile).

      • The end of guaranteed access to incumbent infrastructure is strong incentive for innovation in last-minute access.

    • A third position:

      • Internet is not neutral now and hasn’t been.

      • It would be hard to go back to purely neutral.

      • Not all discrimination is bad.

      • There is a need for network management.

  • Prior to 2008, not a lot of media or attention was devoted to net neutrality in Canada

    • 2005 Shaw communication instituted a $10 QoS charge for using third party VoIP.

    • 2005 TELUS cuts subscriber access to pro-union website “voices for change”.

    • 2005 Rogers admits to traffic shaping—throttling peer to peer traffic on its network (slowing it down).

  • Bell Canada throttled their retail service and third party ISPs.

  • In November 2008, CAIPs application against throttling was denied by CRTC. CRTC said that no one was able to prove that Bell was doing anything with their customer information. On the same day, CRTC said that they were sensitive to the arguments. They called a review of the internet traffic management practices of internet service providers. Two weeks ago CAIP asked the CRTC to rescind their decision.

  • Charlie Timmons tabled a net neutrality bill last Friday.

  • In the US…

    • Net neutrality garners a lot more media and political attention in Canada.

    • 2005 FCC released net neutrality principles.

    • Oct 2007, Comcast was throttling peer to peer communications.

    • In winter of 2008, FCC held two public hearings. In August of 2008, FCC found Comcast guilty of violating principals.

  • In the US, throttling is discriminatory. This is NOT the case in Canada.

  • It is possible to treat congestion on networks without throttling.

  • Hearings in July will be interesting. Over 11, 000 people filed a comment to the CRTC.

  • Net neutrality in libraries

    • Intellectual freedom and access to information

      • Most libraries have a statement for this.

      • Without net neutralities, ISPs could give preference to its own info, etc. there would be two tiers: fast and easy, vs. slow.

      • Teaching critical thinking skills becomes difficult without net neutrality

      • Universities straight out block peer to peer applications–they don’t even throttle. Examples of blocked applications are Skype and Facebook, but also some blogs are blocked as well!

      • UofT applies download caps: 2 gigs of data per week. Research in the social sciences can use this very quickly. Also, what if Fine Arts students need access to big images, video, etc.?

    • Protecting cultural diversity

      • Without net neutrality, it’s very difficult to disseminate.

      • Globe and mail had series called the download decade. Peer to peer applications.

      • If libraries can’t give access to Canadian cultural content, this is problematic.

    • Privacy protection

      • DPI technology has the capability to look into the content of messages sent over internet.

      • Most libraries have a statement on info privacy.

      • If ISPs have ability to track user searches, viewed websites, etc., libraries would not be able to provide privacy to patrons.

  • Is the net an essential public utility?

  • It has to remain under public control.

  • Network operators cannot discriminate as they wish because:

    • They are themselves content providers. They are content owners (vertical integration).

    • There is a lack of competition, especially in North America.

    • They are not transparent about their traffic management practices.

  • There is a need for some form of regulation. It would be unpractical to have a purely neutral net. Legislation should be flexible and adapted to the current technological environment. The legislation should be based on a normative framework that specifies what public duties the net should serve.

  • ISPs should be transparent and accountable to public bodies.

  • Investment in last-mile architecture is needed and should be facilitated by governments. New forms of last-mile management should be explored.

Further reading on net neutrality:

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