Category Archives: net neutrality

The metered Internet threat to innovation & access to information

Remember the early days of mass public access to the world wide web? Back when AOL was king, noisy dial-up modems were par for the course and having any graphics on a webpage was super-fancy? Remember in 1993 or so, when you’d connect to the Internet, download your email as quickly as possible, disconnect to read the text and write your responses, then connect and send your pre-written emails as quickly as possible? It’s the type of scenario today’s kids would find baffling and hilarious: clunky, unwieldy, expensive, and certainly not one that encouraged increased use of the technology.

Well, everything old is new again. The CRTC (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission), Canada’s telecom regulator that brought us nearly-neutrality rules just a year ago, recently issued a decision on “usage based billing” or UBB (Telecom Decision CRTC 2011-44). And the meter on your Internet may well be back on – albeit measuring bytes rather than seconds this time around.

A lot of reaction to this decision is coming out, and more analysis will follow in the coming days, I’m sure. OpenMedia.ca has a petition up, Canadian news outlets are covering the decision (and reaction) widely, and online content providers are understandably furious.

I haven’t gotten a chance to comb through the decision in detail yet, and I have to take a couple of boys to the science museum shortly, but there are a few points I want to make right off the bat. I may be back later to comment further or clarify these quick notes.

1) UBB is not the same issue as net neutrality (unless #2 applies)

The reason usage-based billing sounds so appealing, so normal,  is that we do pay per item/metered amount for a lot of goods. We pay for utilities like hydro (hydro = electricity for you non-Canadians) on a metered basis, and many areas also meter water (although that is not without controversy). Frankly, the UBB idea is a brilliant example of big ISPs hearing the pro-neutrality argument that Internet should be treated like a utility and running with that concept, turning it to their advantage.

A lot of the same folk who were up in arms over net neutrality are upset about this UBB ruling. And they have good reason to be outraged. However, in strict sense, UBB is not in contradition with net neutrality (where net neutrality = slowing down of selected content en route to the consumer). My understanding of the CRTC UBB decision is that it is supposed to be content-agnostic, and only size-based. Now, this doesn’t make a lot of sense, policy-wise, anyway (as I will discuss below), but it’s not necessairly non-neutral.

However, metered use makes sense for goods for which we have  a finite supply, not for things like information, which do not require rationing. Economically speaking, information is a non-rivalrous good, meaning that my use of the good (say, a webpage, journal article or TV show) does not in any way prevent you from also using & enjoying the same good.

I know, I know, there’s that old argument about your pipes getting clogged because your neighbours are downloading too much big stuff all the time, but frankly Canadian ISPs have been given ample opportunity to show evidence of this overload, and none has materialised. In fact, the logs we did see during the net neutrality hearings showed the exact opposite of congestion, making it clear that this is just a cash grab. (I do want to make the point, however, that even if congestion were present – and eventually it may exist if ISPs fail to invest in their infrastructure – that does not mean that the correct response is to slow down Canada’s Internet in response. Other industries are required to upgrade their infrastructure over time as needs change or parts get old and fail.)

2) UBB is a potential neutrality workaround

While I think the intent of the CRTC  is allow metering of all Internet content equally within the same subscription plan, and to do otherwise is likely a violation of the still-untested CRTC net neutrality rules, there is a lot of scope here for ISPs to provide favourable conditions for content from which they benefit.

For example, an ISP may offer special promotional “exemptions” from UBB for content offered by their parent company – dinging, say, Netflix while exempting their own online TV/movie service. This isn’t throttling content in the “pipes” or charging a toll to content providers for content delivery, it’s charging a toll to users for content access. It’s throttling the consumer’s wallet.

3) UBB is a giant threat to access to information, and to innovation

Here’s where it gets really ugly. Imagine what it would (will?) be like when we are charged by the byte for information downloaded (and possibly also uploaded?) over our connections.

No one knows how much bandwidth they’re using so they minimize use, fearing fees. AJAX is no longer an asset; it is a liability and we disconnect from continuously refreshing websites to save bandwidth. The pressure is on for online content to be as compressed as possible, hitting the art community hard. Community wireless, such as building-wide wifi in co-op housing, becomes potentially pricey and hard to control.Schoolkids are no longer encouraged to post videos from the classroom to demonstrate and share learning. Employers start to police recreational Internet use more than ever. Coffee shops and other hotspots stop offering wifi all together, making life harder for freelancers, the self-employed, students and others without official workspaces.

Fearing the bandwidth limits on their personal subscriptions, the middle-class flock to libraries to do their downloading. Libraries cannot afford this. Libraries may not be able to afford current levels of bandwidth use, if metered, particularly academic libraries or those dealing with subject areas involving rich media (art, film, music…). I cannot over-emphasize the threat to public access to information via libraries here: libraries are currently THE places in society where anyone can access the Internet. If libraries have to limit this, ration it somehow, or lose this role, it will be a tragedy both for libraries and for the public who rely on library Internet. When public Internet access is limited or closed, public access to information, and therefore public participation in democracy, is seriously impinged. With the government increasingly moving to online-only forms, information, and dialogue with the public, how responsible is it to simultaneously move to meter Internet use?

We may move backwards in time, returning to network television for entertainment. Online course reserves could be pricier for the university than those old print custom course packages. We might actually revive the fax machine?!? Why would a country want to push its population back in time, when the rest of the world is jetting ahead with innovative multimedia content and new delivery systems? Hard to say. Just dumb policy-making? The cynic in my says it could be that those making the policy stand to benefit from old media technologies and fear the threat of the new. However we may drag our feet and try to slow things down within national borders, change and innovation are going to happen – if they need to happen elsewhere first, that will happen. Maybe the CRTC needs to attend Karen Schneider’s talk at MLA?

-Greyson

ETA – Well, that didn’t take long. The decision has already been appealed. Fasten your seatbelts!

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Filed under academic libraries, business, democracy, digitization, government information, inclusion/exclusion, Intellectual freedom, Internet, media democracy, net neutrality, privatization, public libraries, technology

Net neutrality & tiered pricing structures

It’s come to my attention that AWMarco at Team Awesome wrote about the recent Harpham and Greyson net neutrality articles in Feliciter (<– pdf warning) and seems to think that I conflate the issues of data packet neutrality and access to unlimited bandwidth in my article.  I don’t agree that I conflated those issues in my article, although I concede the AWMarco and I may have different definitions of “throttling” and I should have clearly defined the term in my article.

I stand by my statement that a neutral net is both content- and protocol-agnostic. I do not agree that being protocol-agnostic necessarily means letting one high-bandwidth user eat up your entire network. I pay my ISP for a certain mb/s speed and a certain GB/month data limit per month, and I do not expect that my use will be tampered with as long as I stay within the limits of my subscription – no matter what (legal) content I access or publish, and no matter what protocols I may use. If my ISP has oversold their capabilities it is on them to increase capacity otherwise come clean with customers.

I do, however, think the issues of content neutrality and tiered pricing for different levels of service are commonly conflated. Given that I actually found the above blog post while writing a long email to someone just last week about how tiered pricing structures are not the same thing as net neutrality, I figured I ought to set the record straight by repurposing some of those emailed words for the blog.

Here’s the thing:

Some people do include tiered pricing (paying more for faster access/more bandwidth) under the umbrella of “non neutrality.” I do not, and to my knowledge my library associations have not either. Rather, we have focused on differential treatment of types of info or protocols. I recommend staying with this tighter definition, and not getting into the area of tiered pricing for speed.

While tiered pricing is not equitable, it does not (IMO) violate the
principle of network neutrality, which I define as a network that is
neutral to the info sent over it, in accordance with common carriage.
To extend a metaphor, I can send you a book via air mail instead of surface mail and get it there faster if I pay Canada Post more $, but it’s not okay for Canada Post charge me more $ for sending a book of political propaganda than a book of fairy tales (or a French book more than an English book) sent via the same mode.

Canada Post should not treat my package differently based on what is inside. The fact that some people cannot afford express air mail prices, while inequitable, is a different issue than slowing down mail because you don’t like what’s inside.

It’s a little tricky, in terms of semantics, because sometimes you do hear people use “tiered pricing” in terms of access to portions of the Internet — in a non-neutral net an ISP might hypothetically charge end-users a premium for non-throttled or non-blocked access to the Internet. But mostly when you hear “tiered pricing” you think paying more for faster Internet access, which is pretty much the norm right now, and not usually included in the net neutrality basket.

I know that excessive prices for decent bandwidth can be a library issue, certainly.  That’s why we have the CAP program, much like library book rate with Canada Post. However, when we’re talking about neutrality, I think we should steer clear of talking about tiered pricing for speed, and focus on content/protocol neutrality at every access level.

-Greyson

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Online drug advertising & the regulatory challenge

Between the (minor!) bike accident , the kid’s birthday, and being out of town for a bit, blog posting has gone a bit by the wayside the past few weeks. However, something that’s been much on my mind lately, and which I’d like to discuss here, is drug advertising online.

I’ve written various posts before about DTCA – direct to consumer advertising of prescription drugs – which is legal in limited form in Canada, and in much greater form in the US. I think prescription drug promotion of all sorts is a big social justice issue, and that DTCA is a significant and oft-overlooked consumer health info issue that librarians should have on our radar. When we talk about the Pew research on online health info seeking, social media, and “e-patients,” we cannot forget that profit-motivated companies are as interested in our patients’ online information behaviour as we are, just for very different reasons.

The Canadian “freedom of expression” lawsuit on this matter has been indefinitely adjourned, but I’ve come to wonder if perhaps debating the merits and perils of television and magazine ads may be rather passé in light of the Internet’s growing centrality as an advertising medium. Maybe CanWest was not just throwing in the towel on a lawsuit that was destined for failure (b/c the FOE argument was pretty weak), but also strategically abandoning old media. Nah, actually, I think CanWest is still pretty wedded to old media, but the rest of us aren’t. And we are the target audience for DTCA.

Now, I know some people (lots of them) still watch TV on TV, even with all this digital conversion business. But will they in a decade? Not so sure. Hulu has been such a huge success in the US, spawning constant rushes of hordes of international viewers to one proxy setup after another in order to see the latest episode of their favourite shows. It’s only a matter of time before online TV is de rigueur in any region with decent bandwidth & reliable connectivity.

The unofficial rules for online drug advertising have, to this point, basically been an extension of the TV advertising regulations. It’s debatable whether this is appropriate or not. I’ll take on whether the Internet is more like TV or more like the telephone in a separate post (soon! I promise!), but I think we can all agree that it’s not *exactly* like TV.

Many online ads, for example, require some active selection on the part of the reader/viewer, and are not necessarily as time limited as TV ads (and thus able to provide fuller information). Typical online drug ads today appear as advertisements in the margins of a website, and attempt to entice the reader into clicking them to go to a website with fuller information on whatever the condition/drug may be.

In a somewhat impressive attempt to be proactive (?), the FDA (US drug regulator) held a couple days of public hearings last month on the topic of online drug advertising. The 5-page list of speakers (pdf) was heave on pharma and health tech investors, followed by representatives of online services both general and health-specific, ranging from Google to WebMD. So that pretty much covers the people who want to advertise, and those who want the money from said advertising. Of note, there were reps of specific social marketing units within pharmaceutical companies on the docket, so Pharma is well aware of the stakes here (e.g. Sanofi-Aventis has a rep, and then the Sanofi-Aventis social media working group had a rep as well). Unfortunately, I could pick out only a very few advocacy/public interest groups, such as the Consumers Union.

To backtrack a bit, this hearing didn’t come out of nowhere, although it was not terribly well publicized.Back in April, the FDA issued warnings to some 14 pharmaceutical companies over their “misleading” online advertising. At issue was failure to fully disclose risks, and these letters focused on search engine ads (aka “sponsored links” in some search engine displays).

November’s hearings, however, were broader in scope, touching on not just search engine advertising, but also ads on websites, and – perhaps most significantly – in social media. This is excellent news, as we know that social sites are an ideal location for what I called “embedded DTCA with a social environment created to reach vulnerable and isolated populations” in my post about the “patient support” site RareShare a year ago.

So what? Where is this going? What does the Internet mean for drug advertising and patient protection?
Well, there some very interesting threads to watch as this policy story unfolds:

  1. The Internet doesn’t do super well with national borders. If laws on DTCA are different in different countries, do they have to appear differently based on site host location? IP address of the end user? How? DTCA on television has taken advantage of lack of political will to enforce existing laws to broadcast US drug ads across the Canadian border. Will the Internet do any better? (Personally, I am doubtful.)
  2. The Internet, however, does allow for end-user participation on a scale unprecedented by other media. Some people have voiced optimism regarding the potential for commenting and annotation to temper, force transparency upon, and generally “culture jam” drug advertising. Google’s SideWiki has received a lot of attention in this regard, but it remains fairly unwieldy to use and market saturation is quite low.
  3. The whole net neutrality debate applies here, and the way this debate influences our view of the Internet will influence the way we feel about things like online advertising. Is the Internet a media for entertainment or communications? Is it a utility, which should be neutral and allow for participation from all, or is it a medium for consumption? We would feel quite different about picking up the phone and hearing an ad than we do about a commercial break from a TV show.
  4. Social media can really blur the line between non-profit advocacy and for-profit promotion in a nasty way. It’s one thing to regulate what can or must be said inside a little “ad” box in the margin of a website. It’s quite another to regulate embedded personalities within a social media site, who are planted there to promote certain products. I will be quite surprised if these hearings/this process even touches on this issue, but variations on hidden advertisements are a phenomenon that’s well-known in the blogging world, maybe less recognized in some other social media fora (Facebook, where everyone is supposedly using their “real name”?)

-Greyson

p.s. During composition of this post I cheked the CBC news online, and lo and behold there was an example of DTCA right on the site. So I snapped a screenshot, of course, to stick up here. This is an example of a currently-legal “disease awareness” ad for erectile dysfunction, from the Health News page of the cbc.ca:

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CRTC issues net neutrality ruling

And here it is.

I won’t have time to fully parse the policy decision till tonight, but my initial impression is that it’s a feeble gesture in the right direction (that being net neutrality), clad in nationalist bombast (“Canada is the first country to develop and implement a comprehensive approach to internet traffic management practices”).

At a glance, it seems that ISPs are still allowed to “traffic shape” but out and out throttling is discouraged unless the ISP feels it’s really necessary. Consumers are now supposed to be informed if their ISP is going to change traffic shaping practices, and consumers can complain, which will then possible trigger an investigation that will ask the ISP to explain what and why. There are also some new privacy guidelines for deep packet inspection.

So ISPs are still allowed to throttle, and to conduct deep packet inspection, but they have to jump through a few more hoops to do so now than they did before. There are also some new restrictions about wholesale ISP services, which I hope will help small ISPs remain competitive and viable.

Any other thoughts on the ruling would be very welcome.

Some initial coverage:

CBC coverage here (CBC’s been hot on the NN file since the throttling of Next Great Prime Mnister).
Excerpt:

“Big telecommunications companies such as Bell and Rogers can interfere with internet traffic only as a last resort, the CRTC says. Instead, they should use “economic measures” such as new investment and usage limits to combat congestion on their networks.”

Michael Geist’s take is here (Geist obviously knew some things I didn’t know about what was coming down the pipe on this one!  <–Unsurprising):

Impressively optimistic excerpt:

“The CRTC’s net neutrality (aka traffic management) decision is out and though it does not go as far as some advocates might hope, it unquestionably advances the ball forward on several important fronts…Today’s CRTC decision signifies that traffic management is not a free-for-all and the days of ISPs arguing that they can do whatever they please on their networks is over.  That said, it also guarantees that traffic management practices such as throttling will continue and it is going to take more complaints to concretely address the issue.”

More to come, after I’ve had a chance to read & digest more.

-Greyson

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Unicorns don’t exist; net neutrality is just distastefully fair

The top story on the CBC News website this evening is “Net Neutrality doesn’t exist, CRTC told.

Laugh or cry?

Internet congestion is inevitable and net neutrality does not exist, Canada’s internet regulator was told Monday at hearings on how internet providers control and manage internet traffic and speed.

But here’s the best part:

Congestion is a natural occurrence on the internet, partly due to unexpected events such as Michael Jackson’s death, said Don Bowman, chief technology officer for the network technology company Sandvine Inc.            

Got that?  It is Michael Jackson’s fault that you are being throttled! Hee.

According to the same CBC coverage, Bowman also asserts that deep packet inspection is necessary in order to keep VOIP from breaking up due to congestion.  I’m no ISP, but I have a hunch there are other options here…for example deploying other “shaping” technologies that don’t invade customer privacy, or the radical path of increasing available bandwidth.(On this note, I am quite intrigued by Scott Stevens’ suggestion “that some internet traffic management could be carried out by customers themselves rather than the ISPs” and interested in how that could work!)

What’s disturbing is that Bowman is not only acting as a CTO but speaking at this CRTC hearing, apparently without knowing that net neutrality is.  He is quoted as saying:

“In times of congestion, an unmanaged network is not a neutral network,” he said. “Inequalities in application design and user behaviour mean that an unmanaged network inherently favours certain applications and their users.”

Actually…an “unmanaged” network *is* a neutral network.  That’s pretty much the defninition, if by unmanaged you mean the ISP is not allowed to tamper with or discriminate among the content flowing across their lines.  A neutral network is a highway with no toll roads, no right to pull you over to see if you have pornography or the Little Red Book in your backpack in the passenger seat, and no ability to say that Hondas get a fast lane but Fords have to take the slow lane.

I don’t get how this guy can say net neutrality doesn’t exist.  However, if it works for him, I’m going to start declaring things I find either personally distasteful or bad for my wallet nonexistant.  Like…paying rent.  Rent payments definitely do not exist, you know.  They are but flights of fancy which we should no longer indulge. Also torture —  It doesn’t exist anymore.  And those people who say “liberry” and “I could care less” — totally fictional, you know.

Figments of the imagination.

Unicorns.

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CRTC Online “traffic management” consultation ends today!

If you are Canadian/in Canada/care about Canada and  haven’t had the chance to comment on the CRTC’s online consultation on internet traffic management, here’s your reminder that today is the last day!

(And I think the website runs on Eastern time zone, so for us left-coasters it may close before our midnight, as my posts last night were showing up stamped with today’s date.)

Even though the online process could have been better publicized, I am honestly impressed that the CRTC is trying something this new and, well, fairly innovative for government! (Wait, would lack of a neutral net hinder the CRTC’s ability to try such innovative endeavours as online consultations…?

There are 6 sections, each with a question the CRTC is soliciting feedback about. They ask about things like: impact on innovation, which “traffic management” approaches you’d find acceptable, what the CRTC’s role should be with regard to the Internet, and whether/how ISPs should notify customers about their practices.

If you tried out the M-Lab tools I wrote about a few weeks back, you can mention your results in the “Impact on User Experience” section of the consultation.

I meant to highlight this consultation earlier, but, well with the flu and all and conference season starting up, it just didn’t happen. *hangs head*

So, if nothing else, try to take a few minutes on your lunch break or something to agree or disagree with some of the posts that have been written over the past month.

Last summer we were all writing letters to the CRTC asking for a real, open public consultation, and here is the most open, accessible consultation I’ve seen yet from the CRTC, so I really felt like it was my duty to go respond in pretty much every category.

Now, after all that work, I will be really frustrated if they don’t seem to respond to the input provided on this e-consultation. And I’m fairly confident I’m not the only one. Join me?

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Am I being throttled? Yep.

(Note: I am sick as a dog with the flu, and trying to do something productive by editing and rolling out a few drafts from the past months that never made it to fully-gorwn posts.  Please forgive any grammar atrocities while I type through the fever.)

If you need any more help getting riled up about net neutrality, check out the new M-lab (Measurement lab) tools to see whether you are being throttled!  Cool!  Just last October I was at an Info Policy conference bemoaning the fact that there were no tools easy enough for lay users to manage that would tell us whether we were being throttled.

According to their “Who We Are” page,

Measurement Lab was founded by the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, the PlanetLab Consortium, Google Inc. and academic researchers. M-Lab was developed in 2008 after Vint Cerf and others at Google initiated conversations with network researchers to learn more about challenges to the effective study of broadband networks.

I tried it out and it worked for me.  Of course, it’s no surprise, since my ISP is one of the many that already disclosed to the CRTC that they “traffic shape,” and we have noticed what has seemed like undue congestion while trying to stream video in the evening hours, but now I know for sure: I AM being throttled.  My deep packets are being inspected.  Hrm.

How about you?  Throttled much?  Try it out and let me know, if you have the chance.

On the Search Engine podcast (#19) from back in February in which they discussed the M-lab applications that allowed me to verify this, Jesse Brown tried to get Google to admit that they were trying to egg people on into taking action against throttling ISPs.  The Canadian Google representative on the air demurred, but I think it’s brilliant, and it’s working on me.  I want to go submit my comments to the CRTC’s traffic shaping consultation all over again. (<–Hold that thought…)

Greyson

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