Can the Internet be truly neutral?

Andrew Orlowski

IN A much-celebrated remark, a senior Bush administration aide told journalist Ron Suskind: "When we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality, we'll act again, creating other new realities." But with the democratisation of publishing, creating new realities is now a game that everyone can play. Conspiracy theorists have used the web to great effect, with a mini-industry insisting the 9/11 attacks were a U.S. plot. Describing the popularity of such fantasy realities, Alexander Cockburn lamented that "outrage burns in many an American breast, but there's scant outlet for it in the political arena."

Where else to turn but the Net? Now questions are being asked of one of the most impassioned net-based campaign of all, Save The Internet. Last year, campaigners in the United States tried to get Congress to pass pre-emptive legislation needed to protect the Internet. But it is a problem many network engineers say does not exist. Critics say the campaign generated a reality totally at odds with how the Internet works, and the real problems it faces.

It is a phenomenon academics have feared for some time, and it challenges one of the most utopian claims made about the Internet: that a greater abundance of information leads to greater wisdom. Two economists studying the Net found the opposite to be true.

Virtual cliques

"With the customised access and search capabilities of Information Technology, individuals can arrange to read only news and analysis that align with their preferences," wrote Professors Marshall Van Alstyne and Erik Brynjolfsson in "Electronic Communities: Global Village or Cyberbalkans?" (tinyurl.com/yoeqqp) 10 years ago. "Individuals empowered to screen out material that does not conform to their existing preferences may form virtual cliques, insulate themselves from opposing points of view, and reinforce their biases."

They noted a tendency for opinions within groups to become polarised. "The effect is not merely a tendency for members to conform to the group average but a radicalisation in which this average moves towards extremes." So what is Net neutrality, and how come views on it are poles apart? "Thanks to Wikipedia, you can choose between five definitions of neutrality," rues telecom lawyer Rhys Williams of Bird and Bird.

The neutrality debate typically revolves around fears of abuse of the infrastructure, owned by telecommunications companies, to discriminate against content companies. Fears expressed by one blogger in The Nation magazine (thenation.com) were typical, predicting "an `information super highway' for those who pay and a dirt road for those who fail to do so."

Campaigners cited remarks made by AT&T chief executive Ed Whitacre, who had apparently threatened to charge large companies more for access. But did he? Google is little help in determining the truth: its search engine returns thousands of blogs that repeat and elaborate on the same story.

No one disagrees that America's biggest phone companies are moving into the television business as rivals to the cable companies. It is an expensive gamble: Verizon has spent $20 billion on new fibre infrastructure to deliver 100 megabit per second connections into the home. No one disagrees either that today's Internet is inadequate for this kind of video service. Verizon and AT&T do not need the bandwidth so much as they need to control the quality of the connection: video is sensitive to delay, and what engineers call "jitter," while email and web pages are not.

But an examination of Mr. Whitacre's public statements, without the filter of bloggers, suggests that what he really feared was unbundling. If Google or Yahoo! both of which wish to enter the Internet TV business had equal access to Verizon's private network, then the business case for new infrastructure investment would vanish. And Verizon would have nothing to show for its multibillion-dollar splurge.

The U.K.'s most prominent Internet engineer, Jon Crowcroft of Cambridge University, thinks that activists had imagined a bogus demon. "Net neutrality is a misdirection, a red herring," he says.

The gap between fear and reality is even more stark when the technical issues are examined. The neutrality amendments rejected by Congress last year (tinyurl.com/k5th2) would have made many of today's private contracts illegal, and outlawed the techniques such as "traffic shaping" that ISPs use to curb bandwidth hogs.

Misunderstanding the Net

Even worse was the long-term chilling effect. Neutrality would have made designing a better Internet much harder, says the man commonly described as the father of the Internet.

Robert Kahn says that neutrality legislation poses a fundamental threat to Internet research because it misunderstands what the Internet really is; it's a network of networks, and experimentation on private networks must be encouraged. "The Internet has never been neutral," explains Professor Crowcroft. "Without traffic shaping, we won't get the convergence that allows the innovation on TV and online games that we've seen in data and telephony."

Last month, the neutrality bandwagon reached Westminster where it was dismissed in short order. Summing up the consensus at the end of an eForum debate in London, the former U.K. Trade Minister, Alun Michael, described neutrality as "an answer to problems we don't have, using a philosophy we don't share." And with an echo of Professors Van Alstyne and Brynjolfsson, Mr. Michael said the phenomenon reminded him of the Tower of Babel.

Beyond bloggers' echo chamber, campaigners are realising that the attention paid to Neutrality merely strengthened the hand of the large telcom companies they fear.

Mr. Whitacre's ambitious company SBC achieved a merger with AT&T two years ago, that he personally thought would be impossible, and succeeded in passing dozens of video franchising bills at State level completely unchallenged, all while attention was focussed on neutrality. SBC is now AT&T. Professors Alstyne and Brynjolfsson's warning now looks prophetic. "This voluntary Balkanisation and the loss of shared experiences and values may be harmful to the structure of democratic societies," they wrote. "[We should have] no illusions that a greater sense of community will inexorably result."

And the public senses it, too. Last year, the University of South Carolina's annual study of Americans found that the number of people believing the net gives people more say in government declined and for the first time more people disagreed with the idea the net empowers people.

Politicians, beware.

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006