People for Internet Responsibility (PFIR) co-founder Lauren Weinstein has issued a proposal for a global Internet traffic analysis system capable of automatically detecting prejudicial bandwidth manipulation. Weinstein believes that implementation of his proposal could put an end to the impasse that has stalled the network neutrality debate.
Network neutrality is a model of broadband network operation that does not distinguish between different kinds of traffic for prioritization purposes. Applied to the Internet, network neutrality generally implies that all forms of traffic—regardless of the nature, source, or recipient—are given equal treatment and transmitted without selective degradation. The aim is to prevent the construction of a so-called tiered Internet, which critics argue would lead to widespread quality of service (QoS) discrimination that would stifle freedom of expression on the Internet and allow the broadband duopoly to set up exploitative digital toll booths to cash in on content delivery. Supporters of atiered Internet argue that network neutrality would impede innovation and degrade network operator property rights. The debate has become increasingly hostile, and little headway has been made.
Getting the facts, and acting on them
A recent proposal issued by PFIR aims to offer a more constructive way to move the net neutrality debate forward. The proposal suggests establishing a distributed global Internet traffic monitoring system that would facilitate rapid detection of abusive network manipulation. At a minimum, this system could be used to provide insight and statistical data so that legislators can make informed decisions about what regulatory solutions are actually needed, if any.
PFIR says the system could also be used for a real-time network neutrality enforcement framework. Legislators could craft a set of uniform network handling standards and an automated system could be devised to leverage the monitoring statistics and impose corrective sanctions when deviations are detected. The standards could be adjusted as needed in order to limit any potential negative impact on innovation.
"This proposal, if implemented from both the technological measurements standpoint and on a legislative basis to whatever degree may be deemed appropriate, would offer what amounts to a 'status quo' operating environment to ISPs so long as they continued to compete in an open, fair, and nondiscriminatory manner, but would enable the promise of quick and decisive corrective actions in the face of any specific abuses as detected by, and defined in conjunction with, the proposed global Internet measurement infrastructure," says the proposal. "Triggers and remedies under the approach proposed here would be as specific and quantitatively precise as possible, and only activated in the face of defined violation conditions based on the hard data from the measurement environment. In the absence of any defined abuse conditions being triggered, ISPs and related operations would proceed on a free market basis without new constraints."
The concept described in the proposal is intriguing on several different levels, but the costs and challenges of creating such a massive monitoring system should be questioned. In some respects, a fully automated system is preferable to other kinds of regulatory proposals because it would reduce the potential for inconsistent enforcement. Most conventional Net Neutrality regulatory solutions that have been proposed thus far would empower government agencies like the FCC, which aren't necessarily more reliable than the Internet service providers themselves. An automated solution—assuming that it could be devised in a manner that prevents outright manipulation—would be far more transparent and less susceptible to the frailties of bureaucracy.
On the other hand, there are clear cost and privacy concerns that will afflict any kind of Internet traffic monitoring system of this scale. In order to make this proposal viable, PFIR will have to address such concerns and provide more specific implementation details.