Net Neutrality – what’s it all about?
Just over two years ago, on Thursday, 3 April 2014, the European Parliament passed a resolution defining the principle of net neutrality and calling for its application.
Soon thereafter, in May 2014, P. Maillé and B. Tuffin expressed their reservations about the ambiguity of the text and its definition in their article, ‘Le problème de la neutralité du Net est-il réglé ?’ (“Has the problem of net neutrality been solved?”).
Now, in 2017, the question arises about the means to set up to verify and manage the enforcement of this text at EU level, as well as at the level of the regulatory authority of each EU member state.
It is in this context that the BEREC, he Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications, has initiated a number of consultations with consumer rights associations and network metrology companies, in addition to service providers, to gather their ideas on how to set up a means of control.
The matter is important especially for internet users because it means that internet provider offers would not be allowed to differentiate quality by price.
What is net neutrality?
The definition adopted by the EU Parliament is as follows:
« Net neutrality means that traffic should be treated equally, without discrimination, restriction or interference, independent of the sender, receiver, type, content, device, service or application. »
If we refer to the publication by P. Maillé and B. Tuffin, it appears that this definition could be expanded to encompass service providers, including search engines that promote sponsored links or even CDNs (Content Delivery Networks) which serve content more quickly to the user in exchange for payment from the content provider. Nevertheless, working toward regulation at the level of network traffic is already a good first step.
How can some internet services be favored over others?
From a technical point of view, let’s take the 3 most common types of discrimination:
This is the most widespread of the cases reported by internet users on the site RespectMyNet. Zero Rating consists of excluding certain online services from your mobile data cap, for instance, subscriptions to video channels like YouTube or music platforms. The direct effect of this kind of economic discrimination is that it becomes more difficult for alternative platforms to thrive because in such circumstances they cannot gain audiences and generate revenues.
How can you detect zero rating?
This practice can be spotted easily by checking data consumption while using the service.
To connect to an internet service, the connection is made on a port (often a TCP port) to an internet address. It is technically possible, on an operator’s network, to block connections to specific ports and thereby prevent certain services from being used.
How can you detect blocking?
This practice is very easy to spot. To check whether a port is blocked, you can attempt to connect to the service, for example with a simple ‘telnet’ command to the port in question.
This consists of restricting the speed of data on certain services/usages. Technically this practice requires more sophisticated equipment that is able to analyze network traffic at various levels (cf. DPI, Deep Packet Inspection). Traffic management rules can then be applied in different ways. The speed of loading a photo, for instance, can be limited by analyzing the file extension. It is also possible to limit the speed of an HTTP flow. Some manufacturers market or have marketed equipment that allows this kind of processing, such as the company ByteMobile, now taken over by Citrix.
How can you detect throttling?
Detecting this type of practice is much more complicated and requires a specific methodology because the measurand (the object being measured) is, in the final analysis, the performance of a service, and performance can vary totally randomly over the course of a day, for example.
What networks are the most affected? Fixed or mobile?
According to the same site, RespectMyNet, internet users find that mobile networks are more discriminatory than fixed networks.
Which EU member states are cited?
Again according to the site RespectMyNet, statistics by country demonstrate that the phenomenon currently can be encountered in twenty EU member states. This goes to show that the work being done by regulatory authorities and the BEREC is needed.
Note, however, that this breakdown is based on a set of 89 reported cases, too small a scope for drawing conclusions by country.
Net neutrality, what’s happening on the other side of the Atlantic?
The FCC (US Federal Communications Commission) has also been looking into the matter. The stakes are definitely political and economic, since the FCC’s orientation seems to have changed since the arrival of the Trump administration, which appointed Ajit Pai to the head of the FCC. Chairman Pai feels that net neutrality rules are a ‘mistake’ and could overhaul existing regulations concerning internet providers.
Net neutrality in conclusion
It is becoming more and more urgent to reflect on the measures to take to gain an objective view of this important subject at the European and national levels.
As an organism which measures fixed and mobile networks and services, we feel how complicated it would be to conceive a permanent, automatic system for analysis and control, given how varied and complex cases often can be.
Nevertheless, it appears vital that each regulatory body should have the means, whether their own or those supplied by external providers, to conduct spot checks of practices that are discriminatory and reported as such by internet users themselves.