Saturday, 13 July 2013

Net firms raided over broadband 'throttling'

Come on BBC. That article is lacks any clue as to what basis legal European Commission competition officials have to raid anyone.

It seems that Cogent have made allegations that must, at best, be commercial in nature, and may amount to some breach of contract, if contracts prohibited traffic shaping. Surely there is nothing criminal, and surely only something criminal could possibly justify any sort of "raid".

The accusations appear to be "alleged uncompetitive market practices by the three firms." and "The "throttling" made Cogent's services appear to be slower than those being run by the European ISPs, it said."

If the ISPs have a contract with Cogent, as many do, that may impose conditions. But ISPs do not have contract with Cogent if they do not want to. If Cogent do this sort of crap, then why would any ISP risk dealing with them.

It is almost worth calling for all ISPs to block all traffic via Cogent. It would be easy to do, and if it is legal, it would put them out of business. I am not calling for such, but surely actions by Cogent that are causing some major ISPs problems, "raids" even, could lead to that sort of action from the ISP community.

If not a contract with Cogent, then, as I understand it, any ISP and anyone running any corporate network or their own firewall, can choose to slow or block any traffic they like based on any criteria they like. It is common, and completely normal, to "prefix stuff" and use other metrics to steer traffic via carriers for commercial and technical reasons. It is not a big leap to shape traffic via some carriers.

If we did link to Cogent directly, we could choose to do so via a 10Mb/s link which would be full and make all Cogent traffic look slow. That is not good for our customers, so we won't do that, but I cannot see it would in any way be illegal and justify any sort of "raid".

If that sort of thing was illegal, then you have all sorts of issues. ISPs could not risk any links getting full for fear they were seen as running an over capacity link to make the carrier look bad. A DoS attack could put you in breach of a law.

Heck, there are ISPs blocking people based on court orders based on commercial interests of copyright holders. ISPs providing services to schools block all sorts of traffic. ISPs shape all sorts of traffic for all sorts of reasons.

As far as I know, whilst ideals of "net neutrality" have been discussed, they are not a legal requirement yet and fraught with complex issues in defining what would and would not be allowed. It is a complicated area, and one to which I do not know the answers.

It will be interesting to see how this pans out.

6 comments:

  1. Naff journalism - "visited" turned into "raided" which sounds much worse.

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  2. 'Net neutrality' isn't required - and indeed I've expressed views similar to yours in that context in the past - but when it's a dominant ISP which also happens to run a rival service, it could well be a breach of competition law, and rightly so IMO. It's why BT's interconnections are still strictly regulated even now: in theory, A&A could perhaps decide not to allow VoIP customers to dial any 01738 numbers, or accept them incoming - but BT, as the dominant provider, don't get that option. Otherwise, they could decide not to let A&A make or receive calls, or that you're only allowed 24 simultaneous calls total - and you lose all your customers, through no fault of your own.

    Virgin and Sky have commercial interests in degrading Netflix and Lovefilm service to their ISP customers: should that be allowed?

    I never knew Cogent were Google's transit provider, as the article implies (I'm seeing Google directly at Telehouse anyway) - I knew they were carrying a lot of Netflix traffic, but Cogent's history of peering disputes seem to go back at least as far as Netflix being mail-order only. Cynics may note a correlation between rivals losing hosting/transit business to Cogent and those same rivals threatening peering links...

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    1. Net neutrality is a complicated area - as you say, there are plenty of cases where commercial interests could be anticompetitive and detrimental to customers.

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  3. In the end a lot of this relates to whether an ISP "owns" its subscribers especially where a company has TV, Phone and ISP divisions exerting commercial influence on each other and a natural monopoly exists on the infrastructure of delivery. Typically in the cable/satellite TV world the network operator "owns" it's subscribers. They control whether a TV channel is available to their subscribers and thus whether that channel gets the advertising revenue from those customers. Thus flow of cash isn't always one directional, and the network operator is going to get very tetchy about channels going direct to customers over the internet rather than their private channels. The executives of these ISP's are worried about cannibalising their own TV division revenue and don't want to "just" be an ISP.

    With the advent of Netflix and other internet TV companies vertically integrated TV companies are now seeing their customers "cutting the cord" and going directly to MLB.com etc. Frankly the TV divisions are panicking, they've already seen a ton of international revenue from their Phone divisions go to Skype etc. Thus you get companies like Verizon wanting to charge the transit companies for access to their customers in order to replace their lost TV revenue.

    Has the traffic already been paid for? Yes, the customer has paid for internet access and the content provider has paid for internet access. Should the ISP be entitled to get paid twice for the same traffic once by their customer and once by the transit company? That's the commercial dispute, and the answer isn't necessarily clear; should we allow a premium to be charged for prioritised access to specific user groups? This isn't to say this is an option that should never be considered, but perhaps not one we want to sleepwalk into without good think. Whilst it could be argued that well informed customers can vote with their feet but in a lot of areas telco's have a natural monopoly so this may not be an option and that's what would make this a competition issue. It would also mean that ISPs doing this kind of shaping would need to be forced to be transparent about it, and not deny it/blame the content provider etc.

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    1. Well put. I do think that one big first step is transparency over what is done. Even so, that is going to be hard to explain. What if an ISPs says "We set a lower metric on routes from carrier A where marked with community Z to prefer carrier B". That may not have a clear "user understandable" explanation, and may even be a reaction to traffic flows and no a "policy decision" related to specific usage of those blocks.

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    2. I'd argue that most customers are not well informed (nor technical enough to be well informed) - if a major ISP does something evil to a content provider's traffic, that content provider is going to have an uphill struggle on their hands to convince people to change ISP - the fact that 0.1% of the users are technical and informed enough to understand that its the ISP at fault is largely irrelevant. And then there's the momentum of changing ISP - even the technically informed people are going to weigh up whether the affected service is worth the hassle of changing ISP.

      This is even more the case where you have numerous systems dependent on each other; its often very hard for even the most technical people to figure out which one is at fault (server software / ISP / client software / something else in the path, such as proxy servers, etc.) We're currently having a lot of problems debugging issues revolving around Apple software because it just plain doesn't give you any debugging information at all - frequently the client software just sits there looking like its waiting on the network when it is in fact not even trying to connect to any servers. No helpful error messages telling you why its failing.

      That said, I think there may well be some merit in prioritising certain traffic. For example, reducing jitter on RTP traffic by pushing it to the head of the queue. But this needs to go hand in hand with assuring that the network is able to cope with the demand rather than using traffic shaping to avoid the need to upgrade infrastructure, and obviously avoiding users abusing the prioritisation is crucial.

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