Research networks insulated from adverse effects of US net neutrality changes

Much has been made of the repeal of Obama-era net neutrality regulations by the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) late last year. Opponents fear that US-based Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will be now able to change the way people access applications and services over the net. The US Public Library for Science (PLOS) has warned that organizations with open research and data dissemination mandates could be adversely affected, as ISPs could throttle or block services that are not willing or able to make side deals to ensure maximum bandwidth.

Research Networks Insulated from Impact

Fortunately, organizations and institutions leveraging the global web of Research, Education and Innovation (R&E) networks (like ORION in Ontario or any on Canada’s NREN) are insulated from this issue and not likely to feel many adverse effects. This is because they operate independently of telcos and ISPs.

“This is a last mile, delivery issue that should really only concern US consumers and those who want access to them,” says Alyssa Moore, Policy & Strategy Analyst for Cybera, Alberta’s high-speed research, education and innovation network. She says R&E networks embrace the principles of net neutrality, and their systems of global networks don’t rely on telcos or other ISPs for the exchange of data.

Canada Supports Net Neutrality

Canada’s federal government has affirmed its support for net neutrality. Last April, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) ruled against allowing ‘zero-rating’ – exempting certain types of online content such as streaming or social media from a subscriber’s data usage – and disallowed the practice of throttling content in 2009.

It means Canadians accessing the commercial internet generally will not be affected by developments in the US.

Changes Could Create a US Slow Lane

However, Canadian commercial traffic routing through the US could theoretically be slowed as it crosses through Internet Exchanges operated by US telcos and ISPs. The editors of Nature argue that big data traffic associated with research originating, for example, in Central or South America, or from Europe, that is routed through the US could find itself crossing through a ‘slow lane,’ unless a preferential service had been pre-arranged.

The Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL), in an open letter of support for net neutrality, says the creation of an internet slow lane through the US could adversely affect Canada’s research community.

 “We don’t really know what the new rules might be,” says ORION’s Director, Technology Innovation, Brad Gray. He says people accessing specialized applications based in the US could feel an impact. Data from those applications would originate and traffic through ORION’s private connection, allowing it to run at optimal levels. But, Gray explains, “return data traffic to ORION from a US-based application could in fact be routed through a slow lane on the commercial internet, if the application hadn’t negotiated premium service.”

New Regulations Could Create a Global Innovation Chill

Gray also warns that the biggest impact to Canadians may be on developers who are working on applications aimed at US consumers, and thus must leverage the commercial internet there.

Canadian developers currently enjoy a level playing field in terms of access to US consumers. Changes to the US net neutrality may mean negotiating with ISPs to ensure access to consumers once new products are ready to be launched. This could lead to a global chill on innovation, given the size of the US market.

Gray asks, “Would Google be what it is today if Microsoft had been able to negotiate exclusive premium delivery?”

The Fight Has Only Just Begun

At the end of February 2018, a Federal Appeals Court ruled that the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has jurisdiction over internet providers. The ruling was in response to an action involving AT&T Mobility, which claimed it was exempt from oversight on the issue of data throttling. (Oversight of consumer complaints over internet service and privacy practices had been left to the FTC, but was being disputed.)  The ruling is being cast as positive but net neutrality advocates are still urging Congress to restore rules protecting an open internet.

More than 30 US state governments have responded in a variety of ways. Some governors have signed executive orders restricting state agencies from doing business with ISPs that aren’t protecting the principles of net neutrality, while others are preparing state laws that directly support net neutrality.

In Canada, Open Media is asking for interested parties to sign an international petition asking the US Congress to overturn the FCC’s actions and restore net neutrality in the US.

Time will tell how things will unfold, but for now, ORION continues to offer the critical infrastructure necessary for collaboration, providing researchers, educators and innovators with the tools and connections they need in order to make pioneering discoveries and provide cutting-edge education

Photo credit: “Slow Down” by Luc B, Creative Commons