Internet Access as a right and the Egyptian Internet Shutdown

I’m not going to do any in depth analysis (I’ll leave that to my good friends at Renesys)- it’s everywhere – but unless you’ve been comatose for the last few days, you can’t have helped notice the situation in Egypt.

Being an internet geek, I’m still going to focus on the country’s decision to take itself offline – killing it’s Internet connectivity to the rest of the world.

Firstly, while it may have slowed down the ability for folks in Egypt to communicate rapidly with the rest of the world, and potentially organise demonstrations, it also seems to have managed to drive folk who might have otherwise stayed in front of their screens out onto the streets, where they can either generally protest at the Mubarak regime, or specifically protest about being isolated from something they now take for granted.

It certainly gives the Police something to do…

The “kill-switch” mechanism appears to have been pretty simplistic, and non-technical in implementation. It is highlighted from the Renesys, RIPE Labs, and other analysis that the main Egyptian ISPs seem to have been called on in turn by folks from the Mukhabarat (the Egyptian equivalent of the secret service) and instructed to shut down external connectivity – by taking down interfaces or BGP peers.

The lack of centralised technical measures required shows that it’s not necessarily difficult for any administration to do this – either using existing instruments in law, or just having enough agents and judges to churn out the court orders and pay folks a visit.

However, the other thing to consider is that some countries are now starting to treat the Internet as an essential service and almost fundamental right, like access to water and power.

I’ve just on the way from a visit to New Zealand (where I participated in the NZNOG ’11 conference). The NZ Government is currently embarking on a process of using Government subsidy – with the premise that this will get paid back over time – to bootstrap open access FTTH implementations in major urban areas in NZ, to the extent they should bring 75% of the country’s 4.5M inhabitants within easy reach of high-speed broadband.

The motivation behind such a move is that reliable high-speed internet access will be a cornerstone of economic growth, but that comes with the corollary that it becomes an expectation of the consumer, just like they expect the power or water supply not to go off unless it’s a genuine emergency (such as the flooding in Queensland, Australia).

However, it seems like the Government involvement could become a double edged sword, as they investment threatens to come with various regulatory strings attached – the change in funding, from a private, entrepreneurially-built infrastructure, means that the Government feels like it has a right to have a say. Remains to be seen how much of one yet, but there’s already dangerous talk of “mandatory peering”, and that sort of ilk.

As far as I can tell, there’s no talk of a massive comic-strip style busbar “kill switch” being built in NZ, and the NZ Government seem to appear like moderate and reasonable folk, but will the investment in UFB be brought to bear when the NZGovt want Internet providers to accede to their desires in blocking content or controlling access?

Back to the “Internet access as a right” for the closing few words: Flipping the question on it’s head, how would you feel if the Government shut the power off to your neighbourhood because they felt like it served their needs?

Finally, a touch of irony. I composed this blogpost from 37000ft over the Texas, thanks to the reliable and affordable in-flight internet access they provide on board Virgin America.

(While on board, I saw the announcement that Mubarak has appointed his Intelligence chief as Vice President. Says a lot, right?)

That’s how richly woven through our often already complex lives ready internet access has become. Think back a few years. People’s expectations are already changing.

Update – 31st Jan 2011

Vikram Kumar, Chief Exec of InternetNZ (the association that engages in technical and public policy issues on behalf of the NZ Internet community) has just blogged an article about the possibilities for a take-down of NZ’s external connectivity to the Rest of the World. Summary: probably unlikely.

Update – 2nd Feb 2011

Internet access in Egypt was restored in the last 12 hours, and there’s coverage of this on the Renesys Blog

Comcast-NBCU Deal Approved

Yesterday, the FCC approved Comcast‘s proposed purchase of the controlling stake in NBC Universal, but with some conditions – such as giving up the Board position (and control) in online video service Hulu, despite still owning a good share of it, along with other regulatory controls – limits on exclusivity of NBCU produced content and how it should operate according to the FCC’s Open Internet Principles – to try and keep a rein on what the merged entity can and cannot do, to try and retain a reasonably level playing field in the market (to the relief of other cable operators, online video distributors).

It looks like quite the regulatory straitjacket, which has no doubt also cost public money to develop, and will cost more to enforce.

Despite this, all I can hear in the back of my mind is the “thud, thud, thud” of the Stay Puft Marshmallow man‘s footsteps, coming to crush anything in it’s way under it’s squishy feet.

Auntie Beeb on Net Neutrality

Earlier this week Andy D suggested that I might be listening to too much Radio 4.

I don’t necessarily think that’s been a bad thing, as that means I caught a couple of items on Net Neutrality. Indeed, the Beeb seems to be showing increasing interest in this area, and wouldn’t you, if there was something which threatened your editorial freedom?

Imagine for a minute that Sky Broadband subscribers got ultra fast access to Sky News (and other News Corp) content, while poor old Auntie (among other content providers) got packet-shaped, throttled and capped to a crawl? Now you’ll see what the fuss is about.

Anyway, Radio 4 has recently discussed Net Neutrality on two occasions in the past few weeks.

Firstly during the long-running consumer affairs programme “You and Yours“, on the 7th October, there was a brief discussion (will open a link to BBC iPlayer) which included comments from ISOC’s Leslie Daigle.

This week, on Monday 17th October, there was a further segment on the subject (iPlayer link) in the “Click On” programme – fast forward to around the 17 minute mark – which contains the fantastic quote of “Put three geeks together in a room and you’ll get four definitions of Net Neutrality”.

I’m not sure if that says more about the issue, or more about the geeks. 🙂

There’s also a rather nice BBC blog article from Erik Huggers (Director, BBC FM&T) which incorporates and sums up nicely elements from both the above articles, including that despite the appearance of freedom of choice and competition in the UK consumer broadband market, it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, due to triple-play lock-ins or the sheer aggro factor.

The closing paragraph talks about “thin-end-of-the-wedge” concerns about this gradually creeping in through the backdoor if the regulators don’t use tools in their power to manage this contentious issue.

While the BBC, as a major content player, do have a vested interest in preserving their editorial freedom and equal opportunity to distribute their content, there’s a lot of sense behind it too.

Beginning of the end for hotspots?

The Dutch Telecoms Regulator has announced it will require Dutch hotels to register as ISPs (Slashdot article).

Despite the fact that the hotel usually doesn’t own the wifi infrastructure in the hotel, and certainly isn’t an ISP in the normal sense, the Dutch regulator’s rationale is that the hotel is reselling the ISP service – i.e. is a VISP.

I don’t see this is always the case, as the hotels in the .nl, from my experience, don’t rebrand the ISP services as their own. However, they often collect the money and charge it to your room folio.

I suspect the meta question here is what does this mean for hotspots generally, especially the ones which are currently free?

Does this drive up their costs significantly enough to either a) cause free hotspots to charge or b) shut the hotspot down, because the costs of the bureaucracy aren’t recovered?

What happens if I let someone else use a MiFi that I own? Am I an ISP too?

Seems more thought is needed!