A constant complaint of net neutrality naysayers is that no one knows what net neutrality is. Lacking an agreed-upon definition, the debate swirls into a maelstrom full of red herrings, as various ISP spokespeople talk about how net neutrality threatens legitimate network management, or will interfere with quality of service.
It's high time we moved past that argument, define some terms, and get on with things. That's one of the accomplishments of the recent resolution on net neutrality issued by the Trans Atlantic Consumer Dialog(TACD). PK's press release on the resolution is here; Ars Technica has a nice writeup here.
TACD is a broad coalition of US and EU consumer groups, covering issues ranging from food safety and labeling to privacy and identity theft to patent and copyright issues, including pharmaceutical patents and DRM. Last Monday, the coalition met with representatives of the US and EU to present several position papers and resolutions, including the one on net neutrality.
Instead of defining net neutrality as a specific set of rules to be implemented, the document defines net neutrality as a state of non-discrimination against content, users, providers, or devices:
In a neutral Internet, consumers:
have the right to attach devices of their choice?
have the right to access or provide content, services, and applications of their
have the right for their access to be free from discrimination according to source,
destination, content, or type of application.
The resolution goes on to specify the general outlines of ISPs' behavior in a neutral Internet:
Simultaneously, in a neutral Internet, ISPs and communications networks:
do not unfairly block content, applications or devices?
do not deliberately degrade access for content, applications, or devices?
do not prioritize data according to its source or destination?
do not discriminate against particular providers of content, applications, services,
Notice the “unfairly” built into that first item. This is a key part of how the resolution draws a distinction between “legitimate network management” and “unfair discrimination.”
A whole section of the brief resolution is devoted to explaining this difference. For instance, blocking malware or DDoS attacks is perfectly legitimate, and blocking these types of traffic would be helpful in maintaining a neutral and functional Internet. Likewise, if a customer specifically asks for certain content to be blocked or degraded (such as with spam filtering, or if a parent wants to restrict their home computer's access to adult sites), that would be consistent with a neutral network.
The resolution goes even a step farther, noting that it's not a problem to prioritize different types of data, depending on their sensitivity to traffic patterns. So VoIP and video streaming packets could still be prioritized over text, since the former need a continuous stream for quality delivery, while the latter can easily be delivered in bursts without a user suffering, or even noticing a change. What's not ok, according to TACD, is when providers start discriminating against particular users or content providers, based not upon the type of service or application, but upon whether or not they have business deals with certain providers, or political disagreements with some users.
In a way, this lines up with the concept of defining the net neutrality problem as a discrimination problem. Just as in other areas of law, there can be proper and improper discrimination. If a restaurant owner simply doesn't have enough unreserved tables to seat a busload of guests, that's legitimate discrimination. If, on the other hand, he turns away only those of a certain race, religion, or nationality, or if all of the tables suddenly become reserved when a member of the disfavored group asks for a seat, that's clearly invidious, illegitimate discrimination.
The TACD resolution asks the US and EU to encourage network neutrality by preventing unfair discrimination, through regulation and by encouraging competition. Of course, for either regulation or the market to work, you need more than a general statement—you need consumers to be able to make informed choices. That's why TACD also asks that ISPs disclose what kinds of network management they use, so that invidious discrimination can't masquerade as legitimate network management.