Open networks

Sitting alone on the stage in front of a crowd of about 100, Sir Tim Berners-Lee did what any self respecting geek would - he got out his laptop and disappeared behind the screen.

For some reason, this made me irrationally happy and despite promising the assembled crowd that I wouldn't, I had to tweet about it.

Sir Tim was in town (albeit briefly) to talk about openness and what it means and while clearly he had enough material to conduct a lecture on each of his various aspects of "open" (source, network, data and government among others), he managed to condense the whole lot down into an hour-long session of windmilling arms, anecdotes, side tracks and sudden bursts of enthusiasm, not to mention Maori.

It was his final point, on open networks, that struck me as most important. In effect it's the net neutrality debate in which Berners-Lee says we must stand firm against telcos and ISPs that want to degrade or promote service to one part of the net based on commercial relationships. All telcos shape traffic and do a myriad of other things to keep the data flowing but when it comes to providing a better grade of service to one provider over another (he spoke of Netflix, as an example, being slowed to a crawl because of a commercial relationship with another movie provider) then we must demand an end to such nonsense. The power of the web, says Berners-Lee, comes from its agnostic approach to all bits on the network - prioritise voice or video or email as you will, but do it equally for all voice, video or email services. Do not promote one service over any other.

Which raises some interesting questions in the New Zealand context because of course our ISPs already do this. We've seen Sky content "zero rated" by some ISPs which means users don't pay for traffic to and from that site.

Strictly speaking that's at the very extreme end of the net neutrality debate. It's not an inhibition on any other service, it's not a prioritisation of Sky content over and above Quickflix (for example) but nonetheless it sits on the spectrum of net neutrality issues and must be considered as such.

Telcos will, naturally, follow the money when it comes to such things. If I had content I wanted to share as widely as possible I'd go in with a big cheque to make sure mine was top of the search terms, promoted on the broadest possible platforms and of course the easiest to access. What is needed in this space is clear guidance as to what's acceptable to users and what's got a longer-term prospect for skewing the market (the network itself) for future use.

The last thing I want is an internet where I have to buy service off multiple providers because ISP A has BBC content but ISP B has access to the movies I want.

Thanks to InternetNZ, Department of Internal Affairs, Chorus, Google and Catalyst for sponsoring and making it all happen and to Sir Tim for a thoroughly enjoyable and engaging evening.