Net Neutrality: what does the Google Verizon proposal mean for GNU Linux?

Net neutrality has been a hot and persistent topic on the internet for some time, so I'm not even going to attempt to summarize the debate here. Anyone who values their personal and online freedom knows it's a crucial issue. Regardless of your operating system or the software we use it will affect each and every one of us. However, if you use GNU/Linux you're already tech savvy and familiar with the politics and philosophy of free and open software, so you'll be particularly sensitized to the impact of threats to net neutrality on free software. Just how could it affect users of GNU/Linux?

Words you'll never hear

You'll never hear Bill Gates say that GNU/Linux is the future of computing or Tony Blair claim that he's found WMDs in Iraq

You'll never hear Bill Gates say that GNU/Linux is the future of computing or Tony Blair claim that he's found WMDs in Iraq, and it's a sure bet too that you'll never hear a Windows user say that they've just upgraded the operating system online. If you have, you're starting to hear voices and you may be getting a visit from those nice young men in their clean white coats, with syringes and restraints. If you hear a Ubuntu user saying this, you won't bat an eyelid. For us, it's old hat and even if we're downloading an ISO of any distro, well, nothing out of the ordinary there either. It's all in a day's work. And there's the central fact. More than Apple or Windows, GNU/Linux users need a level plain field in regard to net neutrality. The code is free and open, the software is free and open too but all of that is underpinned by assumptions about access to it -- and that means the internet. Without it, we would be dead in the water. The devil though is in the detail. What specific aspects of this latest threat to net neutrality threaten us, if any?

So what's the problem?

Net neutrality guarantees that all end users and content providers, from the big commercial companies to the humblest blogger typing out their words of wisdom on a WordPress-powered site, are treated equally. That principle, which should be invariant and inviolable, has been under threat form commercial interests and nation states for a variety of nefarious reasons. They prefer the slogan of Animal Farm: all data are equal but some are more equal than others. Well, at least the FCC has always favoured a level playing field. Of sorts. The proposal by Google and Verizon appears to threaten this by effectively creating a two tier internet with a slow lane and a fast lane. The latter of course will be paid for in much the same way that here in the UK you can watch dozens of channels on Freeview at no cost (paid for by advertising, with the exception of the BBC which is funded by the licence fee), but if you want "premium content" for film and sport channels, then you have to divvy up for it -- but at least that does not disadvantage Freeview users. You can take it or leave it.

This proposal would affect the slow lane because if ISPs are going to favour companies paying for preferential treatment, those self same companies are going to attempt to recoup their costs by possibly putting themselves behind a paywall. Equally, the ISPs will be hosting all of this with greater bandwidth and make seek to offset it, not only by income from the favoured customers but also by hiking up costs to other users. Now, if you are one of the thousands of GNU/Linux users with a blog, a website or just someone who downloads ISOs from official sites or from torrents, I suspect that you may start to see, at best, bandwidth being choked off or your web hosting company ratcheting up charges. For many distros and lone developers of free and open software, already existing on the margins of financial viability and frequently relying on donations from visitors as well as generously donated servers and bandwidth from open source supporters, this could prove the thing that tips them over the edge into oblivion.

the FCC is more likely to be the problem than the solution

You may be saying at this point that safeguards are in place, that the FCC will protect you (if you live in the USA) but history teaches us that safeguards, like the Maginot Line, can simply be got around. For example, as the supposed guardian of net neutrality, the FCC was challenged by the Comcast Corporation, a commercial ally of net neutrality hating Microsoft and well known for its BitTorrent throttling practices. (You can read their four net neutrality principles here, soon to be five by adding a fifth principle preventing ISPs from discriminating against certain sevices and applications.) A Federal appeals court ruled that the FCC did not have the authority to compell ISPs to provide equal access. Google and Verizon's proposal would take obvious advantage of that. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) even thinks that net neutrality is an FCC Trojan Horse and explains here why the FCC is more likely to be the problem than the solution.

Ominous parallels

To take a more catastrophic example from the recent past, the reasons for the credit crunch are complex but one major reason that tipped things over the edge and made it possible was the way in which Wall Street and the City of London lobbied (with bottomless pockets) the American and British governments to financially deregulate. In the USA, the Glass Steigel Act was repealed and that helped to open the floodgates by allowing conventional high street banks to indulge in casino banking like the big investments banks (Leyman Bros. and Goldman Sachs to name two). That led to sub prime mortgages, unrestricted financial leverage and worthless credit ratings of their products which, in the final analysis, were nothing less than a form of a global pyramid selling. The consequences simply cannot be exaggerated.

The undermining of net neutrality pales by comparison but the methodology for its destruction is the same: lobbying, legal appeals and commercial pressure. (RollingStone Magazine's Matt Taibbi has a long, brilliant, detailed and frightening account of what and how it happened.) Just because there are "safeguards" does not future proof net neutrality. In fact, the FCC itself has been accused of "strangling the electromagnetic spectrum", blocking competition and even of destroying the open internet. Intentionally or not, all these thing militate against free software and ultimately free speech itself.

They talk but money shouts and those companies have most of it. They can buy and sell governments--and most of us too

The hubris and arrogance of Microsoft, Comcast, Verizon and their like is such that "guardians" like the FCC and their equivalent bodies outside the USA are contemptuously manipulated and so, bypassed. Techrights has a grim rogues gallery of the culprits and it makes for sobering reading so we should place little faith in gate guardians. They talk but money shouts and those companies have most of it. They can buy and sell governments--and most of us too. Free software is always in peril. That, incidentally, is why, despite all the criticisms of Ubuntu, we should be grateful for someone like Mark Shuttleworth who had some serious money and put it at the service of the open source community.

These companies are insatiable and, who knows, perhaps one day, if Google and Verizon and their ilk have their way, a future correspondent of RollingStone Magazine will describe them as Matt Taibbi so memorably described Goldman Sachs:a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money. Probably not. Google are in the business of making money and there's nothing wrong with that, but unlike the investment banks they are offering a comparatively real, useful and reasonably honest product in the real world unobscured by discredited financial and inappropriate mathematical models and jargon. If they cause the level playing field of net neutrality to be tilted its consequences will be significant but probably not maliciously intended. The same could never have been said of Wall Street or the City of London.


Skewing net neutrality would be the perfect vehicle for and accompaniment to Microsoft's FUD. If you can't beat GNU/Linux, strangle it's bandwidth

Of course, if you are a small open source project, company or an individual running a blog hosting "subversive" views or a PPA for your favourite distro you may find yourself languishing in the internet slow lane, lumbered with increased charges for the same service and or unable to afford the toll charges for the fast lane internet. Your bandwidth may not be directly squezzed by your ISP but if the premium highway gets preference, surely that must affect your speeds and that in turn may reduce traffic to your site. How often have you clicked off a webpage because it was, for whatever reason, too slow to load? It doesn't take great imagination to see how one of the indirect consequences of nobbling net neutrality would be a godsend to non-democratic governments (and some democratic ones too), namely the chance to use it to try and strangle subversive websites like Wikileaks. If Google and Verizon have their way it won't be long before the relentless blood funnel of Microsoft gets in on the act too. Skewing net neutrality would be the perfect vehicle for and accompaniment to its FUD. If you can't beat GNU/Linux, strangle it's bandwidth.

On the positive side, fast tracking Google products, given its limited support for open source (Chromium, Chrome OS and the Summer of Code) might not be such a bad thing but it would be dwarfed by the other big players that either have no connection with FOSS or are actively hostile to it. Then again P2P is a protocol that can be used to negate any problems encountered by BitTorrent throttling and tiered access to official download sites for GNU/Linux distros. Swinging back to the negative side, we recall that one of the great problems of establishing GNU/Linux on the desktop is that Microsoft has a preferential relationship with hardware vendors such that you have to be pretty aggressively determined to find a computer manufacturer that offers a version of GNU/Linux preinstalled or even with a blank drive. They do exist of course, but the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of machines roll off the production line with Windows installed. It's very difficult to kick against the sheer inertia of this and we also know that whenever Microsoft's hegemony is challenged in this area its FUD and financial leverage goes into overdrive. It's not difficult to believe that if companies like Microsoft partnered with ISPs in a post net neutral world how they would behave. Leopards don't change their spots.

It can't be denied though that the sheer volume of internet traffic, especially video streaming and file sharing (legal and otherwise) is fast outstripping the capacity of the infrastructure to carry it comfortably but is a two tier, traffic-shaping internet the way to increase capacity? Or, is it not better to build a bigger vendor neutral infrastructure in which all users are "premium" customers? That way there will be fewer complaints about the bandwidth being hogged by server-side software like the BBC's iPlayer, which infuriates commercial rivals who, as licence payers, subsidise it.

At all costs, the internet must not degenerate into a cable network. Everyone, whether using proprietary or free software, would suffer. Innovation and openness have been the life blood of the internet and few businesses would think of starting up today without a net presence and strategy. With GNU/Linux on the desktop and the server, costs can be reduced considerably. what a pity it would be to see those savings frittered away by having to purchase premium access in a net un-neutral world. The irony is that if the internet loses net neutrality where will the next Google or Napster, dreamed up in a suburban garage by citizen programmers, come from? If Microsoft Windows had been the only platform available when Google was starting up, the cost of Windows licences for their first server farm might have sunk them before they got off the ground; but they had free and open source software, and they should remember that.

Something to think about

Almost as a postscript, the most novel take I've read on the Google Verizon proposal came from Robert Cringley writing in the New York Times. It takes a completely different tack from virtually all other commentaries. From it I discovered something I never knew: Google uses shipping containers to house its data centres. (And you can see Google's own YouTube video about it too.) So what has this to do with net neutrality and the joint proposal with Verizon? You'll have to read his piece to find out--and if he's right then perhaps we can all rest easy. And so can GNU/Linux.


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