Google goes Evil...

In 2006 I brought the Net Neutrality movement to Canada, founding Neutrality.ca and taking the fight to the public. I launched an online petition and collected tens of thousands of signatures. In the process I was able to discuss Net Neutrality with the CRTC, on the radio, and even with MP's who have drafted legislation. Through it all, there was but one principle behind Net Neutrality:

All Bits Are Created Equal.

It's a simple philosophy – one that until today I believed Google respected, even championed. With employee's like Vint Cerf how could I have thought any differently. In 2005 Vint Cerf wrote a letter to congress that formed a foundational ethos to my movement. In it he said:

“The Internet was designed with no gatekeepers over new content or services. The Internet is based on a layered, end-to-end model that allows people at each level of the network to innovate free of any central control. By placing intelligence at the edges rather than control in the middle of the network, the Internet has created a platform for innovation.” - Vint Cerf

This end-to-end principle, or the idea that all bits are equal, is what enabled the Internet we know today.

“I invented the world wide web without having to ask anybody's permission. Hundreds of millions of people are using it freely today. I'm worried that this will end in the USA.” - Sir Tim Berners-Lee

I'm worried too, because Google just told us that it has agreed to put an end to this freedom. Today's deal [1][2] with Verizon specifically permits carriers to create 'differentiated services' or, services that are not 'Internet' as defined by Google – but rather something else, something that does not exist in a neutral network.

If we were to apply the Google/Verizon agreement as policy, and using a Canadian perspective it would mean that while both Shaw and Vonage provide a telephone service. Shaw would be allowed to section a part of their bandwidth for phone, label it a differentiated service, and then give it priority. Vonage, would not be guaranteed such access, and would still have to route their traffic over the Internet.

“Allowing broadband providers to segment their IP offerings and reserve huge amounts of bandwidth for their own services will not give consumers the broadband Internet our country and economy need.” - Vint Cerf – 2005

By definition, this type of prioritization of services by carriers is what the whole Net Neutrality fight has been about. The future of technological innovation, the ability for new Google's to evolve, requires a level playing field such that anyone can compete on the merits of their technology, rather than on their incumbent status from a bygone era.

Beyond this flip-flop on differentiated services, Google has also chosen their words carefully for their main net neutrality language. Instead of using the language accepted by Net Neutrality advocacy groups, language that is before the House of Commons as bill C-552, they have chosen to use the old language of 'undue discrimination', for which Canada has had in law since before Net Neutrality was a consideration.

A comparison:

Bill C-552: [Before the House of Commons]

"36.1 (1) Network operators shall not engage in network management practices that favour, degrade or prioritize any content, application or service transmitted over a broadband network based on its source, ownership or destination."

Google/Verizon Agreement:

“Non-Discrimination Requirement: In providing broadband Internet access service, a provider would be prohibited from engaging in undue discrimination against any lawful Internet content, application, or service in a manner that causes meaningful harm to competition or to users. Prioritization of Internet traffic would be presumed inconsistent with the non-discrimination standard, but the presumption could be rebutted."

Telecommunications Act – (Enacted) S 27 (2)

“No Canadian carrier shall, in relation to the provision of a telecommunications service or the charging of a rate for it, unjustly discriminate or give an undue or unreasonable preference toward any person, including itself, or subject any person to an undue or unreasonable disadvantage.“

If the Google/Verizon agreement was truly an agreement that benefits Net Neutrality, then why does bill C-552 exist in Canada? Surely, if Canada already has Net Neutrality laws against unjust discrimination, then we don't need Bill's like C-552.

The last time the CRTC ruled on traffic management, interpreting undue preference, thousands protested on the hill. We still have Bittorrent throttling, we have differentiated services, we have preference in the form of application level QoS. All of these non-neutral acts, are consistent within the meaning of section 27 – and thus, we have bill C-552 to further clarify that carriers must really, actually, be neutral.

But this debate on language is well known – why then would Google/Verzion choose the 'undue' language when it has been shown ineffective at protecting Net Neutrality? Why further weaken it with a 'meaningful harm' clause? Why limit damages at 2 million?

Beyond these issues, Google has further retreated from Net Neutrality by pretending wireless is different. It's not. Even our CRTC got that one right in 2009, applying our section 27(2) derived regulations equally to wireless. On this point, the Google/Verizon deal is ridiculously self-interested – which may not be that surprising given Google's success in the mobile market with the Android operating system.

On this point, many will argue that Wireless constraints are real, that bandwidth is scarce, and that Neutral networks wont work. However, the overriding Net Neutrality principle, that all bits are equal still applies. The limits on wireless supply simply mean that the carriers need to manage their supply and demand ratios more carefully. It's why your cell phone plan has a 500MB cap, and your cable modem 6GB. Scarcity is managed through billing, statistics and building capacity – not deciding the technological priority of competitive applications.

Its a simple calculation. Two figures, bandwidth and transfer. Bandwidth refers to the speed at which you can receive data, and transfer refers to how much bandwidth you can use over time. Transfer = Bandwidth * Time. Carriers can only buy bandwidth – they have the same amount of capacity available all the time. For consumers on an oversubscribed network, your bandwidth will fluctuate depending on how many concurrent users there are. If everyone uses their internet all at once, the system would be very slow. As a result, consumers cannot buy truly unlimited amounts of transfer – that is, the ability to use your bandwidth 24/7. Instead, you pay for a defined amount of transfer – and in this way the carrier limits the amount of time you will be using your available bandwidth. If not all users are using all of their bandwidth all of the time, then, the carrier can add more users. This is called an over-subscription ratio. How over-subscribed the carriers network is, defines how much average bandwidth is available for each user and how much transfer they are allocated. By varying levels of supply, and managing demand via bandwidth and transfer allocation, the carrier is entirely in control of its service standards.

Net Neutrality is the best management of carrier over-subscription because it reduces the carriers role to one of simple statistical management over supply and demand. If the net is too slow at peak times, buy more bandwidth. If you can't buy more bandwidth, sell less service. In this way, it Net Neutrality has a positive incentive for carriers to build more capacity. The more capacity you build, the more you can sell.

On the other side of the debate are Network Management technologies, sometimes called application QoS. They allow carriers to increase their over-subscription ratio by prioritizing specific applications and services. The idea being, no one cares if it takes 60 seconds to send an email, if their VoIP call is clear. It allows the non-prioritized state of the network to provide less bandwidth than the customer believes they are buying. If the customer buys a 10Mbit plan, is that 10mbits always, on average, or at best. Usually it's the latter. It's therefore clear why carriers would want to avoid Net Neutrality – under it, they have to build capacity instead of managing scarcity. The problem of this approach is two-fold. First, only existing products can be prioritized – there is no way for a carrier to prioritize a technology before it is invented. Thus, all new technologies get put in the slow lane – unless they ask permission, and likely pay a large fee.

This is what Sir Tim Berners-Lee is talking about when he speaks of the freedom to innovate without permission. Without it, it is unlikely the world-wide-web would have been possible.

The second problem with managed networks is that because the carriers are now in scarcity management, they have no incentive to build new capacity. They stand to make more money by selling prioritization services, and artificially keeping bandwidth levels low.

It is encouraging to note that Canada's S27(2) and the CRTC reading of it for wireless ensures the most egregious of these abuses cannot happen here. However, with the Google/Verzion deal exempting wireless in the US, the green light for capacity management seems to be given. That Google would cede, “unique technical and operational characteristics of wireless networks”, can only be seen as a major concession of Net Neutrality principles by the company.

In the end, what is clear is that Google has taken a major step back from their commitment to Net Neutrality today and abandoned the company motto of “Do No Evil” in the eyes of many advocates of an open and competitive internet.

 -- Kevin McArthur is the CEO of StormTide Digital Studios Inc, and the Founder of Neutrality.ca
 -- Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.5 Canada License
 -- Editing for formatting, but not content permitted.