For a CCT student, an international conference on Communications, Information and Internet Policy is a treasure trove of new ideas, insights and information. At the TPRC44 – the 44th edition of the prestigious annual conference held at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School – saw over 300 participants comprising scholars, economists, think-tanks, broadband executives and government officials from around the globe gather over two days to discuss and debate on some of the most relevant policy issues of the internet. As a CCT student who sat through many of the paper presentations, panels and commentary sessions, a number of terms that came up had a strikingly “CCT” ring to them. By “CCT”, I refer to Internet policy terms that exist at the interdisciplinary crossroads of communication, cultural and technological issues.
Perhaps one of the most intensely debated issues today in the domain of Internet communications policy. Zero-rating has been described as the bleeding edge of the debate over net neutrality and has Internet activists up in arms globally to prevent the proliferation of this practice.
So, what exactly is zero-rating? In a nutshell, it is a pricing plan that exempts particular data from counting against a user’s data cap, or from accruing any excess usage charges. While most online activity, such as web browsing, counts against our data cap, a service provider might decide to exempt a specific video streaming or messaging app from our monthly limits. Facebook’s Free Basics and T-Mobile’s Bing-On schemes are examples of zero rating plans.
While critics of the plan at the conference panels questioned the erosion of the freedom of access to users, senior Facebook executive defended it by speaking of the need to connect the 4 billion people who aren’t connected to the Internet and driving national growth through online access. Does zero-rating provide unfair advantage to big content providers and block access to smaller ones or is it the best tool to fight the global digital divide?
2. Walled Gardens
As debates surrounding zero-ratings intensify, a term that comes up often is the ‘walled-garden” effect of the plan. Zero rating limits users to a narrow experience of the Internet or a “walled-garden experience”, and disincentivizes them from venturing beyond those services that are provided for free. This is an argument commonly directed against Facebook’s Free Basics service that is offered in about 48 developing countries.
The conference offered in-depth analysis of current disputes whether national regulatory authorities (“NRAs”) should permit broadband carriers and content providers, such as Facebook, to subsidize broadband access to a limited, “walled garden” of content. Even though carriers and content providers serve profit-maximizing goals in zero rating arrangements, some experts found the practice can have positive spillover effects and welfare-enhancing benefits appear to exceed costs. However, critics of the “walled garden” internet fear that owing to the habits and inertia of the typical Internet user, even those who upgrade to full internet, are likely to continue to disproportionately use the services they could sign up for during their stint with zero-rating, a lasting harm to competition and public discourse.
3. Hot Potato Routing
A term that may not come up in everyday conversations about the Internet, but certainly is a practice that greatly affects the quality of our Internet experience. Hot potato routing is a routing technique enabling IP packet routing from one Autonomous Server (AS) to another without storing them in buffers. Any router configured for hot potato will immediately re-route the IP packet upon receiving it as if it were a proverbial hot potato.
For example, Netflix pays Cogent (service provider) to deliver its IP Packets to their destinations. Now, I, as a consumer buy Internet service from Comcast. When I watch a movie on Netflix, IP packets are transferred to Cogent and then from Cogent to Comcast, then finally to my laptop or Apple TV. I live in Washington DC but the content I’m watching is stored in California. Cogent and Comcast peer in both locations. So whose network will transfer the packets across the country? Comcast’s will, because hot potato routing will cause Cogent to transfer the IP packets to Comcast as early as possible. Hence, Comcast’s network will bear the heavier burden. While this system was considered an abuse of privilege, today it is offered for additional compensation.
4. Exceptional Access
Most readers would be familiar with the intense courtroom battles fought rather publicly between Apple and the FBI in early 2016. The debate quickly emerged as one of security vs privacy. While the FBI sought access to encrypted data to track a suspected terrorist, Apple insisted its locked phones had no backdoor to user information. Within this broad context, “exceptional access” means access of encrypted information to the government. In other words, exceptional access is the key that would allow law enforcement to access information in phones and laptops protected by encrypted algorithms.
In the wake of the Paris attacks and San Bernardino killings, there has been an increasing demand from law enforcement quarters for greater or “exceptional’ access in the in the interest of national security, privacy advocates and tech companies are fiercely opposed to any such move. They believe, not only would such a scheme be technically unfeasible but also an assault on privacy and First Amendment protections. It also faces the risk of compromising data security by creating doors through which hackers or malicious state-actors can attack the very individuals the enforcement seeks to defend.
5. Last Mile Internet
Research papers at the conference revealed that only about 78 percent of rural US was connected to the Internet compared to 85 percent in the urban areas. Even for those with an Internet connection in rural US, the quality are often poor, slow and expensive. Why this disparity? The answer lies in “last mile” Internet.
Last mile Internet refers to the Internet that reaches our homes and offices. This is the final stretch of the Internet connection or the last mile. It is a crucial area of the Internet as it is where content providers have the least control. It can fall prey to artificial congestion, net neutrality infringement, poor infrastructure, and censorship. In the complex web of cables and routers that carry data from the source to our phones and laptops, internet service providers (ISPs) in the last stretch may create speed bottlenecks or artificial congestion that violate principles of net neutrality. This essentially means last mile operators should not charge different rates for different content in order to keep the internet open and democratized. According to reports, nearly 30 percent of US, mostly rural, suffer from last mile Internet connectivity issues.