Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Government meddling

One of the issues that came up today at the ISPA conference was various sorts of government meddling. As I say, I am not convinced MPs have any clue on the technicalities, but it goes deeper than that.

Super-fast broadband
We have an aim to be the best super-fast broadband in EU. But to be honest that is daft as there are countries taking it more seriously (fibre to every home) and smaller countries that can do it more easily. It is probably a good aim to have some level of inclusion in the technology in the UK. It helps if everyone has internet access just as it helps if everyone has a phone or a TV. If we have a sensible minimum level of technological inclusion in the community and it makes it easier for business and government to interact with the population at various levels.

The problem is one of defining a good internet connection in any measurable way. The last government were aiming just for last mile access speed (ADSL sync in effect) of at least 2Mb/s. As I saw today, asking where that 2Mb/s goes to, for how much of the day, and for what cost, just confused people. But you can't just say it is 2Mb/s to BBC iPlayer for example. You have to qualify that. When is it 2Mb/s - all day? or "whenever someone wants it"? If you go for all day then BBC suddenly need population times 2Mb/s links and huge links in to ISPs that will never be used else we have not met the goal.

If you dumb down the goal then you get typical consumer internet access, where 2Mb/s line rate may be anything from 100Kb/s data transfer at peak times to 2Mb/s at 1am and never very quick for bit torrents. Such services have a place though. It is these that are the cheap, entry level, services that allow people to get on line and have email and web pages. But they do not, on their own, achieve the goal of good 2Mb/s internet.

So you have to allow competition. Can everyone get internet? Can anyone that wants good internet get it even if more expensive? For that you need infrastructure that is open to all ISPs and can be un-congested if they ISP is prepared to buy enough interconnect. People like BT will not even agree a target of an un-congested network so would never agree to guarantee one. BE-Wholesale seem happier to consider it a target. Even if not a guarantee, you need carriers that accept congestion as a fault and will take action to increase capacity. Thankfully I was able to make this point to BIS to consider in their specification for super-fast broadband. Who knows if the comments hit home?

Monitoring and blocking
We know the government like to snoop and meddle. We have the last lot endorsing IWF filtering and even considering legislating (even though the IWF block list only aims to stop people accidentally finding illegal content, and only on web pages - it does not aim to stop abuse or people accessing it if they want to). See

We have the DEA with the possibility of technical measures in the future to restrict or block some or all internet access to someone that has not been convicted and not even directly accused of any crime or civil wrong doing, over copyright violations which may be mistakes or the actions of a third party. As one person made a good point today, legally I am not responsible for other adults in my house - I may have some responsibility for children and pets, but not my wife for example. I cannot be punished in law (criminal or civil) for actions of my wife. But the DEA aims to do just that - with many (most?) internet access having some sharing by people in a household, someone will be punished for the actions of another if technical measures are taken.

The DEA is flawed. It has serious holes that make it easy to bypass, not least of which is the customer simply getting a migration code on recieving the first letter. But it is a stick, which can never work. You need a carrot. People will be able to transfer files covertly - there are some serious innovations in anonymous encrypted mesh networks because of this challenge! If anything this is driving some clever network designs but not stopping copying. No stick can work, but more importantly, even if a stick did stop people copying (or your stats says that has happened as you can't see it now) you don't make more money for the rights holder, and that is what matters. If someone copies a song, or not, is not what is important to an artist, what matters is not being paid for it. Just stopping the copy being made does not help and just means the artist becomes heard less. What you need is a carrot. Make it easy to get media cheaply and simply. Try and change business models to avoid reliance on control of copying, which is fundamentally impossible now. Trying to enforce a concept based on a time when you could control copying is doomed to failure. So media companies, artists, creators of content - find new models. People want what you make so there will be a business model that fits even if not as profitable as the old way.

Of course now this government is also trying to resurrect the interception modernization programme. They want ISPs to log communications data - who you are emailing, including every spam you get or is sent in your name. The concept is flawed. People can get around it. Bad people will. It is well documented how to bypass monitoring and this is necessary for people living in oppressive regimes where the governments snoop on everything and take action without legal process (yes, I know the UK is starting to sound like that). The cost will also be huge. The data will be meaningless (think how much spam you see), and that is before people try to poison the data with fake emails and calls.

Net neutrality
We then have the non story of the end of net neutrality - even though it never existed, and the strange concept that "no service should be blocked or disadvantaged for commercial reasons". But I co-locate my email servers on my network, for commercial reasons, disadvantaging competing email servers. That is how it works. Forcing ISPs to run independent networks to slow down some traffic, and not to peer with other providers but all go via a common neutral transit provision is madness. No, that is not what they are saying, but try and define a law on net neutrality that does not have that implication?

Encouraging growth
All the time we have the complex and expensive and damaging suggestions, the government wants to grow the economy, encourage ISPs and create a digital Britain. They have it backwards. ISPs need freedom from meddling.

It's all messed up, IMHO.

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