Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Deciphering net neutrality and the concept of an open-range internet 5

Posted in business and convergent technologies, in the News by Timothy Platt on February 1, 2015

This is my fifth posting to a series on the contentious topic of net neutrality (see Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time 2, postings 299 and loosely following for Parts 1-4.)

My goal for this posting is two-fold. First, I intend to discuss the pivotal role that Facebook and a group of strategically aligned fellow social media companies seek to play in expanding internet access more fully into what have been the more underserved communities of the developing world. And in the course of that, I seek to more fully explain why the current debates taking place in the United States concerning perceived threats to net neutrality, only touch on one facet of a much larger problem. And second, I intend to offer at least a brief news update regarding the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) hearings on net neutrality, that still are yet to take place as of this writing (on November 11, 2014), given the level of controversy that this issue has generated and the volume of public comment offered.

I begin with Facebook and the social media and related businesses that they are aligned with – and with what I see as the next real net neutrality battle that will come to public awareness after our currently debated public concerns as to open online accessibility have been at least temporarily resolved.

The current net neutrality debate that has captured essentially all of the open net and net neutrality conversation as of late 2014 and going into early 2015, revolves around whether or not online service providers can selectively offer wider bandwidth and better connectivity to some, and slower and less effective connectivity to others. That is in large part a discussion of hardware-level systems access – the level of access to and from backbone internet cable and router systems, and the question of whose message if anyone’s will be given preferential access to this physical infrastructure for a fee. The still to emerge challenge that Facebook and friends offers, is if anything much more fundamental in how it would limit and control online connectivity and information access, and for both content providers and recipients. And to at least briefly explain that, I begin with the absolute fundamentals that make the internet work as a globally shared and accessible resource at all: open standards.

• The internet works the same essentially way everywhere it is available at all, and equally so for all who would go online, because the fundamental connectivity protocols and languages for organizing information online for use, and for transmitting it are openly available and without licensing restrictions, as open source resources.
• This is important; net neutrality is about access to bandwidth and connectivity without requirement of approval from discriminating gatekeepers, who would favor some online information or information providers, or some online businesses or other organizations over others. But more than just that, it is open because the basic connectivity protocols are not proprietarily owned and controlled either.
• Open and unencumbered bandwidth access rights per se cannot offer much in the way of net neutrality protection if the software level protocols and standards that make the internet work were to become proprietary and gatekeeper-controlled.

This brings up controversies, and yes battles that go back to the beginning of the internet, and certainly as a widely publically accessed and used resource with the dawn of the World Wide Web. The basic web format scripting language: HTML was developed as an open standard and was made freely and universally available for use and both by content providers and content consumers from the beginning. But as soon as Microsoft and other for-profit businesses started producing their own web browser software, they began developing proprietary coding add-ons. For Microsoft that meant creating new HTML extensions in the form of special proprietary coding elements and browser plug-ins that would only work on their Internet Explorer browser. And they encouraged third party software providers to develop coding extensions to HTML too, that would only effectively work on their browsers. And on the production side, they commercially offered web development tools for building web sites that use these new formats and features, arguing that businesses that did so could make more effective use of the full range of what their browsers could offer to web site visitors, making those sites more effective to those site owning businesses. Their goal was to carve out proprietary niches in the online conversation by creating what amounted to tools and format level, privately owned areas within the overall internet and its flow of information.

Most of what Microsoft and I add a wide range of other companies developed in this was offered for free for browser users who would access these new forms of online content through those browser plug-ins and other features. Most of the content developer side to this was offered on a for-fee basis and through software development tool fees and licensing agreements, for any web developers who wanted to offer content in these new formats. The business model idea here was that public demand for content with the new features and functionalities contained in these new proprietary web-content formats would compel developers to pay for access to the software tools needed for building web pages that included them.

The basic issues of open source versus proprietary go back a long ways, and this drive to create new and even disruptively new has always outpaced the capacity of the overall organization that manages open source internet software standards: the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to keep up, with progressively more expansive and inclusive updates to their open standards progressively offered to open-source cover more and more of the new innovative developments in what is offered. But new is always being developed faster than it can be included into any new or next version of any of the open source products that an organization like W3C can develop and publically offer.

And to bring this up to date with an example that I saw on my own computer earlier today, I opened my copy of the Internet Explorer browser and I saw a systems-generated notice at the bottom of the screen. This notice asked me if I wanted to turn off plug-ins that were slowing me down, and when I clicked to see what plug-ins were doing this, one and only one came up for review: a plug-in that I had installed for security reasons to keep Google advertisers from tracking my online viewing, with my not allowing that activity adding on average almost five seconds to the time it takes to open my browser or a new tab in it.

I have been writing about bandwidth access and online speed, and how this might be differentially apportioned. Then I switched to consider the software side to net neutrality, which I have been laying a foundation for more specifically discussing here, in the above notes. And I come right back to the issues of accessibility and speed. Not allowing third party tracking cookies should not slow down my computer or my browser in any way, and certainly when I am reducing the number of processes that have to be carried out as I use my browser. In fact a proliferating accumulation of cookies such as tracking cookies is a well-known way to slow down a browser and the computer that seeks to run it, so cutting back on the accumulation of cookies attached to a browser can significantly speed it up. So why does blocking these specific cookies, that do not in any way enhance the functioning of my browser per se, slow everything down?

If the FCC were to offer genuine, wide ranging net neutrality protection, that would impact upon online service providers: bandwidth providers. But at least as importantly, it would directly challenge companies like Microsoft for building their browser software in ways that would lead to slowdowns in function for anyone who does not want to be tracked for their web browsing too, by advertisers and other consumer data aggregators who pay for that consumer monitoring access. And regulatory enforcement of wide-ranging net neutrality would in fact have wide-ranging impact on the software side to this complex of issues in general, too.

Facebook and several other online social media businesses seek to develop new avenues into the developing world through which they could build online communities – around their software, and for as wide a swath of online activity as possible. If they do this as a matter of making open sourced connectivity more widely and economically available in the developing world they are saints. If they primarily seek to do this as a means of making their proprietary software and systems the basic default systems in use and with them as dominant first mover advantage gatekeepers, in these new and emerging markets, saints might not be the best word for describing them. And if the latter is their plan, they are actively seeking to become more of a challenge to net neutrality and to the open internet than today’s tiered access desiring online service providers could potentially become, and regardless of the outcomes of the still soon to occur and conclude FCC hearings on this.

And now my update on those still to occur (as of this writing) hearing: As of yesterday – November 10, more than 3.7 million public comments have been submitted to the FCC in anticipation of their hearings on tiered online service bandwidth provision, and on net neutrality as that would impact upon it. And yesterday, President Obama weighed in by publically offering his own public comments on this too, asking the FCC as a separate and independent agency that functions under congressional oversight, to rule that online access should be protected under Title 2 of the Communications Act of 1934 as amended (see in particular changes to common carrier law as stipulated in the Telecommunications Act of 1996.) That would mean regulating online access and usage rights as essential utilities, the same way that access to electrical power is, or for a more FCC-oriented example, the way more traditional telecommunications access is – and not simply as luxuries or readily disposed of incidentals to everyday life, like television is. And Obama couched his comments directly in terms of the wider framework of net neutrality per se, even as he cited the specific proposed challenge to it of allowing service providers to offer for-fee special tiered bandwidth options to preferred customers, as the here-and-now reason for his stepping in with an opinion on this.

I am going to continue this discussion in the next two series installments where I will discuss a hybrid approach that members of the FCC have floated as a possible resolution to the tiered bandwidth debate, and how this type of compromise approach might create new and more intractable variations on this same specific problems faced now later on, and by that I mean in just a few years from now, or create a basis for a more stable future for all. And I will also continue my discussion of the Facebook-led social media company approach to bringing online access to underserved developing-world communities, there focusing on a set of issues that many would see as more important and compelling than the open source versus proprietary software issues that I have just raised above: access to and ownership of whole new worlds of personal information big data. I will begin with that.

Meanwhile, you can find this posting and related at Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time and at its Page 2 continuation. And I also include this in my In the News postings list.

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