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Keeping ISPs transparent and honest

Do we really need more government regulation when users can hold internet service providers accountable by choosing those who provide the best service?

by David Sasaki On April 1, 2011

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In his review of Tim Wu’s The Master Switch, Evgeny Morozov writes:

Net neutrality is a simple idea with powerful implications. A neutral net would, for example, prevent cable providers from slowing down their customers’ connections or, worse, banning them from running certain services. That is good for customers, who get equal treatment whether they are streaming movies on Netflix, chatting on Skype, or shopping on Amazon. And it is also good for Netflix, Skype, and other companies that have grown using an Internet infrastructure they do not own and have been able to innovate without worrying about shifting rules of the road.

With those credentials, net neutrality seems like a winning policy. But what about the network operators? They are not so happy with net neutrality, and it is easy to see why. If they respect net neutrality, they cannot impose special burdens on consumers who occupy lots of bandwidth by running data-intensive applications during periods of peak use. Nor can they ban Internet services that compete with their own offerings of cable TV or telephony, thus denying them a lucrative source of revenue. The result may be an underinvestment in infrastructure improvement, which is not good for Netflix and Skype, which depend on fast and ever-improving networks. Predictably, then, network operators prefer that the government not tell them how to run their networks and embrace industry self-regulation instead.

Despite this potential conflict between service and network providers, things have worked out pretty well so far. So even as battles over net neutrality have heated up over the past year—with important rulings from the Washington, D.C. Federal Court of Appeals and the FCC, and Verizon’s appeal of new FCC regulations—opponents often ask: why pass laws or regulations ensuring neutrality if we are doing all right without them?

This is more or less the same argument that Adam Thierer makes in his six-part mega-review of The Master Switch: why not leave it to the marketplace? If an ISP like Comcast decides to purposely slow down their users’ access to Netflix or P2P protocols, then doesn’t that provide an incentive for new ISP’s to emerge that don’t slow down their users’ connections with popular services like Netflix, Skype, and YouTube? Do we really need more government regulation when users can hold internet service providers accountable by choosing those who provide the best service?

That argument might well hold true if consumers had verifiable information about how ISP’s actually function, but it is well known that there is a large discrepancy between the actual connection speed experienced by internet users and the speed that is advertised. Last August the US government released a technical paper detailing that:

in 2009, average (mean) and median advertised download speeds were 7-8 Mbps, across technologies. However, FCC analysis shows that the median actual speed consumers experienced in the first half of 2009 was roughly 3Mbps, while the average (mean) actual speed was approximately 4Mbps. Therefore actual download speeds experienced by US consumers appear to lag advertised speeds by roughly 50 percent.

ISP’s now get around this major discrepancy by adding the words “up to X Mbps” when they advertise their connection speeds. Here in Mexico I pay $50 a month to the national telecommunications near-monopoly for a connection that is advertised as up to 2 mpbs. In fact, I’ve never had a 2 mbps connection in the nine months I have lived here. According to Telmex’s own broadband speed test, my download connection speed usually hovers between 1 – 1.5 mbps and my upload speed has never been faster than .5 mpbs. As I write this post, my connection is a bit faster than normal:

Furthermore, it should be noted that the above graphic represents the amount of time that it takes to download a file to my computer from Telmex’s server here in Mexico City. In practice, it will take much longer to download a web page from a server in Japan or Malawi. Also, what broadband speed tests do not tell me is if Telmex is purposely slowing down the speed of certain internet applications like Skype, which competes with their phone offerings, or BitTorrent traffic, which could potentially compete with Telmex’s cable television ambitions.

In fact, software by the Max Planck Institute tells me that Telmex is not selectively slowing down BitTorrent traffic, at least not when I checked earlier today:

In other words, while my internet connection is costly and slow, at least it is neutral. I can use it any way I want and I will always have the same, consistently costly and slow connection. :) In fact, the Max Planck Institute has found that most BitTorrent throttling takes place in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, which perhaps explains why Net Neutrality is still not a mainstream debate in most of Latin America.

An aggregation of user test results from the Max Planck Institute. Hosts that found their BitTorrent transfers being blocked are marked in red.

It is well known that in Mexico you get very little broadband bang for your buck. According to the latest OECD broadband statistics from December of last year, Mexico’s average broadband monthly price per advertised Mbit/s is $26.03, far higher than any other OECD country. A megabit of broadband connection per month in Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Greece, by comparison, will cost you around $3.50. When you adjust for purchasing power parity – that is, what customers can afford based on their monthly income – internet access in Mexico is nearly twice as expensive as the second most expensive average internet connection among OECD countries, Poland.

You can analyze the data and easily create your own charts using this public spreadsheet of the OECD data.

In addition to the Max Plank Institute’s Glasnost tool, there are a number of new and upcoming initiatives that aim to provide more transparency to how ISP’s function, and how their actual performance varies from their advertised performance. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has its own tool to measure traffic manipulation, offers a useful chart of all known ISP testing software. Among all of those tools it is Measurement Lab that has recently received the most attention following a press conference by the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative in which Vint Cerf showed visualizations of Measurement Lab data that reveals that broadband internet connections are far slower than what is shown by the US government’s National Broadband Map. Avideo of that presentation is available on the New America Foundation website and the data itself has been made available on Google Public Data Explorer. (Latin American countries, unfortunately, are not included in the data.)

Despite this wealth of new data, both Google and the United States’ Federal Communications Commission want more. In January the FCC launched the Open Internet Apps Challenge to encourage software and research that “that provide users with information about the extent to which their fixed or mobile broadband Internet services are consistent with open Internet principles.” So far the challenge hasn’t attracted any submissions, but the deadline is still two months away.

This week Google announced a $1 million grant to Georgia Tech researchers to develop tools and bring about “community participation” that will lead to a “Transparent Internet.” In the words of the Georgia Tech press release:

What if Internet users could click a button and determine whether their service was being artificially slowed down? Or if the government were censoring their content? In the name of Internet transparency, a team of Georgia Tech researchers will use a $1 million Google Focused Research Award to provide Internet users around the world with just those kinds of tools.

“Ultimately we hope this project will help create a ‘transparency ecosystem,’ where more and more users will take advantage of the measurement tools, which in turn will improve the accuracy and comprehensiveness of our analysis.

“For example,” Lee continued, “say something happens again like what happened in Egypt recently, when the Internet was essentially shut down. If we have a community of Internet user-participants in that country, we will know instantly when a government or ISP starts to block traffic, tamper with search results, even alter web-based information in order to spread propaganda.”

This is more or less the same idea as HerdictWeb, which uses Twitter, browser plugins, and a web-based form to aggregate reports of inaccessible websites. The project, which is based at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, received a$1.5 million grant from Omidyar Network last year and is currently seeking a CEO to shape its future and “figure out how it can best integrate with other worthy efforts in this zone,” in the words of Jonathan Zittrain.

Indeed, when we survey the lay of the land, it seems that we will soon be bombarded by a wealth of (mostly crowdsourced) information about which ISP’s are censoring the Internet and manipulating access to services like Skype, Netflix and BitTorrent. But so far I see very little in the way of aggregating all this data across distinct projects and presenting it in an accessible way to consumers who want to choose a trustworthy ISP.

One potential way forward is for these projects to work toward establishing a certification system – similar to the certification process of organic food – that clearly demonstrates when an ISP has met an agreed-upon list of criteria. So far, I have only been able to find one regularly-maintained chart that monitors the behavior of ISP’s at an international level, and that is maintained by users ofVuze, a popular BitTorrent client. Today Geraldine Juarez pointed me to ISPwatch, a project of Telecomix, which formerly used Twitter to report on the activities of ISP’s, but hasn’t updated since 2009. Juarez is interested in launching an updated version of the project to certify ISP’s that meet certain criteria.

Here in Mexico network neutrality is only now an emerging issue of serious debate. Many internet users here feel it is best to not bring up proposals for such regulation until there is a need to do so. (That is, until ISP’s start discriminating against certain types of internet traffic.) Regardless, next week the debate will be had at the Mexican Congress on Information Society and Free Knowledge, which is funded by the Mexican government and Telmex, among others. Senator Carlos Sotelo García, who is also the president of the Radio, TV, and Film Commission and an avid Twitter user, will moderate the debate, though panelists have not yet been confirmed.

This article originally appeared on David Saski’s blog

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