Against Net Neutrality?

It’s easy to think of the internet as something immaterial that saves energy. E-mail instead of letters. Streams instead of plastics. No transportation costs… We easily forget or ignore how many wires and servers and how much electricity and air waves is required to do these things. In fact, we don’t even really know.

This long read in Low Tech Magazine gives an overview of how much energy the internet uses. In short, it argues that the internet is not only its backbone infrastructure, but also the smartyphones and the wi-fi connections and other stuff at the user-end of the spectrum. These things considered, the internet uses 8% of the global electricity production according to their estimate. That means that the internet requires nuclear energy to run; that the internet is not a sustainable technology.

While their estimate might be incorrect, we can be sure that the energy use of the internet is on the rise. Not because more people are getting connected, but because people in the rich parts of the world watch more HD-videos, use cloud services instead of their own computer powers, and use more wireless internet. Probably for highly crucial purposes. He he.

4G uses 23 times more energy than a wired connection and a streamed movie uses 30-78% more energy than watching a DVD. The article concludes that the internet needs a speed limit, because forces of technological progress and the rebound effect, aswell as freedom and commerce, will make the internet nuts.

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Meanwhile, the EU recently voted “against” “net” “neutrality”. This has been discussed as a loss for the freedom of the internet. It’s rare to see someone who argues against net neutrality because that’s like arguing against freedom. But what are we talking about here, really? I know little about this topic, but the phrasing always put me off. Neutral? To me, technology is not and can never be neutral, so I’ve always been a bit skeptical of the discussion. Especially since it’s usually one-sided, atleast in the crowds I move in.

I found Martin Geddes who used to work high up in the techy hierarchies of British Telecom. Other than that I don’t know much about him. But he’s not afraid to speak out against what he sees as a nonsensical debate about net neutrality: The pile of literature on ‘net neutrality’ has been a waste of human effort and a loss of good wood pulp.

He argues that networks cannot be neutral and therefore cannot discriminate. With the way the internet works now, it’s chance that decides which packet arrive before the other. So it’s impossible to say whether it’s bad luck or discrimination; it’s impossible to say if it’s neutral or not.

I’m not sure what to make of this. Clearly it’s pretty bad if an internet provider gives a “fast lane” to Netflix while throttling the speed of the rest of the net. It’s also pretty terrible if internet providers can block sites and content. These are things that pro-net-neutrality people talk about. But that’s pretty much what’s going on already, right? More European countries are forcing ISPs to block domains. In Sweden we’re waiting for a court ruling on this in November. Platforms like Netflix use more bandwidth by offering more HD-blockbusters, therefore making the rest of the internet slower than it would be without Netflix.

In other words, Netflix means that online public services become less reliable. That’s something that libertarians and free market ideologues often miss when discussing the internet. Isn’t it important to make sure that important societal infrastructure on the internet works properly? If it is, then “net neutrality” is not what you want. You might want a special lane for societal infrastructure on ze information highway. Or you might want to build an internet where you can source problems and demand reliable broadband from the ISP. And not rely on chance. Or maybe just build your own mesh network or low-tech internet.

Freedom mongers will probably call you a communist for wanting a non-neutal network. Throw in some arguments about a speed limit to improve sustainability and help people get off their HD-addiction, and you should be good to go. Home.

(Obviously I’m not an expert at network technologies or energy consumption and I’m not a net activist so I’m sure I’ve gotten some things backwards. Comments appreciated!)

5 Responses to “Against Net Neutrality?”

  1. kikend0 Says:

    Not an expert on this either, but I think what happens with “net neutrality” is that instead of an ISP and/or some companies dictating who or what service goes on a “fast lane” or not, it’s the users that do. So if the majority wants to clog up the net lines with Netflix traffic, they can, but it’s their doing. It’s like if the electrical company decides what devices you can use more and which less. At least that’s how it is now in the US since Internet has been declared a service like gas or water, or it’s in the process of it.

    I think the shit was stirred also because ISPs wanted to charge a premium to certain companies for this and of course such companies got pissed.

  2. Linda Says:

    A subject so much can be said about ;D Personally, I’m triggered most by the ‘how much does the use of the internet affect the earth (‘s resources)’ line on the energy consumption by a streamed movie vs the use of a DVD. Has been taken into account that the DVD is most likely watched once. And has been taken into account the cost and resources of producing the DVD, as well as the dealing with the waste of the process and the DVD. I think if you do, the 8% has been calculated on direct electricity consumption only and is not near the actual energy consumption involved.
    (I think it’s a bit off topic regarding net neutrality but an important matter nonetheless)

    Regarding “the users decided how the internet is used” as commented by kikend0, I think we should not neglect the bots generating traffic (afaik a fav subject of the writer of the article ;)). Here a linky: https://www.incapsula.com/blog/bot-traffic-report-2014.html
    I’d wonder how that fits the neutrality of the web? I never asked for those bots, to whom do they belong? I think stating that the majority of the internet are the humans behind the browsers is a wrong perception of the reality; the ‘users’ of the internet are not always human and the sites/companies that create them do often not intend to create them just for entertaining purposes (currently I don’t have the time to fully read into the article, I just scrolled a bit through it like a good human internet user would do ;D).

    I see the internet as one big marketing channel and with advertisements we’re told what we want to receive. When the internet started it was advertised the knowledge of the world would be at your feet; nowadays it is buying something and have it delivered the next morning. Or instantly watching a movie. Or dealing with your legal matters with a bank or governmental institution in the middle of the night instead of taking a morning off to arrange stuff. But 90% of my internet time I’d be scrolling some no braining content (this includes news sites imho). Yet, I do not see it as a primary need and it frightens me that it is going that way. I try to be more offline, as if I’m not I cannot focus on offline activities anymore. It’s an entertainment drug and I think it’s good it would be regulated and we keep our heads more in the real life, to keep thinking for ourselves and not just quickly retweeting someone elses opinion in the heat of the moment. That having said, I did type this up in a rush and didn’t think it over all that much. Ain’t nobody’s got time for that.

  3. goto80 Says:

    @kikend0: Like Linda, I’m not sure about how much the decision about which services to use is being made by the users. Bots are often responsible for even more traffic than humans, sure, and I don’t think it’s a “free choice” whether to use mega platforms like Facebook. It’s simply not a realistic option to not use Facebook for some people. One might need it to advertise music, to work, to maintain a social life. Also, services like Spotify and Netflix are bundled with phones and other gadgets, which pushes competiton to the curve.

    @linda: Do you mean that the energy use of a DVD claimed in the blog post is lower than it should be? You might be right. The Lo-Fi Magazine people might have a biased view. :) And you’re definitely not alone to have a hard time with the entertainment/distraction spiral of the internetz. Tbh I didn’t read the whole article in the magazine (sign o’ the times, yep) but I think that was part of their view aswell.

    • Linda Says:

      Well, I think the whole process should be taken into account, including the production and waste a DVD creates. Watching a movie on DVD leaves you a DVD to trash; watching it streamed you’d have to only overwrite the data.

      Looking for an article to see whether my assumptions were right, came across this (yet I do not see the trash part):
      http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/streaming-movie-less-energy-dvd-180951586/?no-ist
      one with pictures: http://www.treehugger.com/energy-efficiency/whats-greener-streaming-video-or-watching-dvd.html

      Thanks for linking to the low tech mag site btw. I didn’t know it, hope to be able to have a read there now and then :-)

      I’d like to add I do have double feelings on the physical media vs streaming when it comes to the smaller music scenes. These piles of waste-to-be as every musician wants to deliver the babies on a physical medium instead of a download link after all. I just can’t feel bad about it as there’s some unmeasurable emotional energy attached to it. I wish that would get it’s own SI unit :D

  4. linde Says:

    Linda, that bot report was based on web traffic only, which in my experience represents a minority of the total traffic in most ISP networks.

    Often the majority of all data consumption is related to streaming services, Youtube, Netflix, HBO streaming etc. topping the lists, the latter growing steadily. For a lot of providers, this is hard to keep up with (subscribers were probably hot bunking over the total bandwidth already) and Netflix ends up with 100s of “partnerships” with ISPs and have their own server hardware installed at their locations to cache Netflix data for faster delivery.

    In the sense that Netflix is a huge chunk of the total traffic I don’t see this as much as an internet “fast lane,” since it removes some load from the network overall, but more like an internet “bus lane” that on one hand gives the clunky buses their own lane but on the other hand limits bus-related congestion in the other lanes. It’s a net increase in satisfaction with the network quality on most ends of it, but also a terrible trend if more high demand services decide to go that route. What if we had BMW and VW lanes? Large parts of the network infrastructure and budget reserved for a tiny minority. Netflix look good because it doesn’t downgrade or start stuttering, the ISP looks good because they can serve tons of Netflix without flinching and the high profile subscribers are happy because they mostly keep a high profile by watching Netflix, but it sets the bar very high for competing services, and maybe there will be a few more bus lanes in the future while the rest of the network shares the gutter.

    One issue about net neutrality I don’t see brought up that often is that a lot of subscription plans don’t allow you to host your own services, say web servers, mail servers, game servers etc. I didn’t know it was a thing until I learned about a few U.S. providers where this is common. Maybe I am in some sort of bubble of people interested in doing these things, but it seems terrible that you’d have to resort to some cloud service for a personal website when you are already paying for a connection. It sort of shifts the internet away from the participatory aspects and more into TV-like consumption. But maybe most people don’t care.

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