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Sunday, October 05, 2014

Net Neutrality solution: Force telco execs & network engineers to swear an "IPocratic Oath"

I've been having one of my periodic Twitter debates about Net Neutrality with colleague & co-disruptioneer Martin Geddes. [Rough timeline is here although it blends a couple of threads & I've edited a bit to make more sense]

As per normal, it's involved bit of back-and-forth about the nature of the Internet, broadband - and how to manage networks operationally and how this relates to policy and the law. Given the current FCC and EU debates around neutrality, so-called "specialised services", fast lanes and related topics like zero-rate charging and app-based business models, it is a timely discussion.

Martin often takes the view that laws should be based "bottom up" starting with how networks actually work, taking into account the realities of TCP/IP, queuing and scheduling in routers and their integral buffers and so forth. He (and others) argue that the Internet isn't really "neutral" anyway, because at a microscopic level there are always algorithms that decide how and when packets are forwarded and in which order. 

In other words, all our cute analogies with pipes or aircraft seat-classes are wrong. All those cartoons of multi-coloured packets flowing through networks? Nonsense. That's not the way it works. And at that level I agree, absolutely.

Where I disagree is how laws and regulations should be framed, and from what starting point.

My view is that policymakers should think about "big pictures". And when the word "outcome" is used, it should be at a macroscopic level of "What do we want our citizens, businesses & society to get from the Internet and/or broadband?" and working down from there. Obviously there is a point where this political "policy" has to map onto network "policy" and operational realities. 

But stating upfront what objectives you would like to achieve - and perhaps more importantly, what you want to tell voters in elections - is a critical starting point. And obviously, there's a host of other things here around promoting innovation, enabling productivity, encouraging investment in networks & Internet infrastructure, promoting freedom of speech, reducing red-tape on businesses, encouraging healthy telecoms competition & companies, fostering employment, social inclusion and so on. Some of these will mutually conflict, as will the technical or economic realities of running the networks. That's life. Compromises, grey areas and legal terms like "reasonable" are inevitable. We can't run the world based on mathematics, even if that's how we'd like to engineer it.

The standard response for that type of argument is "right, so what's the technical standard for neutrality and reasonableness, which engineers can read the specs for?"

And it's true, it's damned hard to codify "political" policies in the form of strict technical specs and metrics. I tend to use terms such as "not differentiating Internet packets based on stated or inferred application" although Twitter is hardly the platform for detailed nuance.

But then Tim Panton dropped in a great suggestion "Doctors have a 'do no harm' rule which then needs practical interpretation in specific circumstances".

In other words, medical practitioners have an over-riding statement of "ethical principle". As it happens, the precise phrase "do no harm" is a relatively modern interpretation of a much older promise called the Hippocratic Oath. It's an interesting read, and the parallels in terms of Internet are quite pertinent:
  • "I will take care that they suffer no hurt or damage"
  • "Whatsoever house I may enter, my visit shall be for the convenience and advantage of the patient"
  • "Whatever, in the course of my practice, I may see or hear (even when not invited), whatever I may happen to obtain knowledge of, if it be not proper to repeat it, I will keep sacred and secret"
In response - and, amazingly, according to Google I appear to be the first to use the term - I suggested that maybe ISPs' execs and network engineers should be forced to swear an "IPocratic Oath" if they want to practice offering Internet services.

Initially, I just thought that was an amusing snappy comeback. But actually, I'm wondering if maybe we're at a similar point to medical practice, where the Internet has become so complex that framing laws in a way that relates to the intricate operations involved is impossible. The impasse at the FCC, and the weird wording in the revise EU Draft legislation seems to suggest this.

Instead, perhaps having an affirmation of "good intentions" - with serious sanctions available if an individual or company is found guilty of transgressing them - is an interesting possible compromise. Truly believe your "specialised services" are really "special" and not merely an anti-competitive ruse? So swear a sincere IPocratic Oath first, and put your career or telco licence on the line...

It could be a neat way to allow genuine innovation and clever use of managed network services - say, realtime monitoring of heart pacemakers needing QoS - while outlawing negative practices like blocking/degrading services ISPs don't like, or trying to subvert existing Internet competition & meritocracy by allowing "fast lane" access in discriminatory fashion. In other words, it introduces the concept of "Ethical QoS" (or "Ethical Zero-Rating & App-based charging").

Yes, I realise this is completely fanciful, and probably impractical & unenforceable. But at the very least it's a useful thought experiment, and, I reckon, a really good pun. I'd love people to contribute possible drafts in the comments, though - who knows, maybe I've stumbled on something?

(And if you haven't already noticed, I have a much more hard-nosed analysis of net neutrality/non-neutrality in this report on mobile broadband business models. Please inquire for details on the forecasts & analysis, or if you're interested in any other form of engagement around this field).

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