As providers roll out zero-rated services, it’s time to re-define net neutrality, says Vishal Misra


In February 2015, the FCC ruled to enforce net neutrality by banning paid prioritization, throttling, and blocking. The decision was hailed as a victory for net neutrality since it prevented Internet service providers (ISPs) from discriminating against certain services and apps by relegating them to a lower grade of service. However, the FCC did not ban zero rating, the practice of exempting websites from data caps. Zero rating is discriminatory also because it favors some apps and websites by making them cheaper and more attractive than competing services.

What the FCC failed to do, regulators in India succeeded in doing. In February 2016, India banned differential data pricing and zero rating, a major defeat for Facebook, which had lobbied hard for its zero-rated Free Basics service. This decision came after Internet and consumer activists rallied the public to the danger discriminatory practices pose to net neutrality. Crucial to this effort was a new definition of net neutrality proposed by Vishal Misra, a professor of computer science at Columbia whose research emphasis is on mathematical modeling of networking systems. In this interview he explains the need to redefine net neutrality.



Vishal Misra

Why is it necessary to change the definition of net neutrality?

Though the term network neutrality was coined by Tim Wu in a 2003 paper—which discusses how a neutral network treats all content, sites, and platforms equally—the common, or folk, definition of net neutrality today usually means that all packets on the Internet should be treated exactly the same.

However today when the Internet is more about services, treating all packets equally is not possible or desirable. Voice services like Skype, gaming apps, and live streaming depend on packets being delivered in real time. ISPs reasonably give higher priority to time-sensitive packets than they do to emails and files, which are more tolerant of small time delays. Emergency services or health monitoring apps are also prioritized.

So for practical reasons, it doesn’t make sense to treat all packets equally. But Wu’s original sentiment that there should be no discrimination on the Internet needs to be re-iterated in context of how people use the Internet today.

What is the definition you propose?

“The Internet is a platform where ISPs provide no competitive advantage to specific apps or services, either through pricing or quality of control.”

This definition shifts the focus from individual packets onto services and apps, and it explicitly prevents companies from using either quality of service (fast lanes, no throttling) or a pricing strategy (zero rating or reduced pricing) to favor some sites over others. The FCC banned one type of discrimination but not the other. This definition closes up a major loophole.

It’s important to point out that this definition allows differentiation between services but not discrimination within a service. It is not discriminatory if all email traffic is given one level of service, while all voice traffic is given another; that is service differentiation.

What is discriminatory is treating some voice traffic differently from other voice traffic, such as when an ISP gives special treatment to its own voice call service that is not extended to competing services like Skype.

The “no competitive advantage” clause is there to make explicit the notion that net neutrality is not how we treat packets but how we treat competition.

The lack of competition in the last mile is really the whole crux of the net neutrality issue. In my research applying economic modeling to Internet dynamics, one recurring motif is the stranglehold ISPs have over their customers and content providers alike. [For a recent article by Misra on this subject, see Routing Money, Not Packets. More of Misra’s research can be found here.] This stranglehold allows ISPs to discriminate against services that compete with their own or with those of their “partners”—companies that pay extra for special treatment.

Though ISPs can no longer degrade service of their competitors—as Comcast was doing when it was throttling Netflix traffic a couple of years ago—they can use zero rating to exempt some services from data caps and make them more attractive to customers. If people have a choice to watch a video without it counting towards a data cap vs watching it on non-zero-rated service, it’s pretty clear what video service customers will choose.

Competition is important if the Internet is to remain a platform for innovation. Many popular services—Instagram, Uber, Snapchat, Netflix, even Facebook and Google once—started off small but were able to grow because they had a ready-made platform that allowed them to reach users. If ISPs are allowed to discriminate against fledging startups in favor of their own services or if the Internet is reduced a pay-to-play market that favors rich companies over startups and not-for-profit sites, we lose an important engine of new services and innovations.

Why do you think the Indian public adopted your definition of net neutrality?

Because the issue of zero rating posed an immediate challenge to net neutrality. In early 2015, Facebook introduced Free Basics to let people access certain websites and services without paying data charges.

On the face of it, Free Basics seems like a good thing for India, where many people can’t afford Internet service, and only about 35% of the population is currently online. But in giving competitive advantages to some websites and not others—Facebook had a list of 30 or so sites—Free Basics violates net neutrality’s guarantee of a free and open Internet where everyone has equal access to all sites. Worse, Facebook would essentially be a gatekeeper to the Internet, the arbiter of what sites or services Free Basics customers can access. People using Free Basics wouldn’t actually be on the Internet, only within a walled garden of sites chosen by Facebook.

There are other ways to give people free access to the Internet—ad-supported or time-limited free access—but Facebook chose a way that put the company in control of customers’ Internet experiences.

Nikhil Pahwa, an entrepreneur and journalist, put together the Save The Internet coalition in March 2015 to rally support for net neutrality and oppose Free Basics. At an early stage, I started working with the group, sharing my research and helping refine the definition of net neutrality so that it took into account differential pricing.

Save the Internet energized an army of supporters, with over one million emailing regulators to oppose Free Basics and other zero-rated or price-differential services; this was an unprecedented outpouring of public sentiment and it got regulators’ attention.

Why do you think Save the Internet was successful?

It articulated very well the importance of equal access to the Internet, tying it to India’s ability to grow and develop its entrepreneurial culture. An open Internet is crucial to that.

But even with this clear ruling by Indian regulators, companies will continue to try to game the market to favor their own content. Facebook lost this round, but it’s easy to imagine that Facebook and other companies will adjust tactics to find some other way to favor its content. Maintaining a neutral Internet will likely be a constant battle. Shortly after the ruling, I was contacted by TRAI [Telecom Regulatory Authority of India] to help clarify the ruling and help identify loopholes that might be exploited.

Do you think this new definition of net neutrality will take hold in the US, where zero rating isn’t a big issue?

People may not realize it, but zero rating is becoming a big issue in the US. When the FCC failed to ban zero rating, ISPs took it as a green light to more aggressively promote their zero-rated services. T-Mobile has Binge On and Comcast has Stream TV. Verizon and AT&T, in exchange for payments, sponsor data services that subsidize bandwidth.
ISPs and the cable companies prefer to talk about giving customers free data, but digging down only a little shows how zero-rating schemes distort the market and undermine net neutrality.

Zero rating has other bad aspects. In Angola, hackers have figured out how to use Wikipedia Zero [a zero-rated version of Wikipedia] to illegally distribute pornography and it’s all free. I personally know of a hack that tricks T-Mobile into thinking any type of data is zero-rated video; anyone using this hack has a way to get unlimited data.
So yes, I hope this new definition of net neutrality takes hold in the US. But it will take the public getting involved to put pressure on the FCC. The ISPs on their part will be lobbying hard to maintain the status quo.

Posted: 5/6/2016