The curiously absent voice in the Net Neutrality debate

There are roughly two camps in the Net Neutrality debate that’s all the rage now (with some very real rage, that too). The first camp is Silicon Valley tech companies and consumer activists. This camp vocally supports Net Neutrality. The second camp is Internet Service Providers and (currently) the FCC. This camp wants ISPs to have more control over how they distribute content, and potentially allow discriminatory behaviour under the guise of innovation.

But there’s a third, less prominent participant in these discussions that is an equally significant stakeholder in Net Neutrality: CDNs. Content Delivery Networks. Pretty much everything you browse on the Internet comes from a CDN, from YouTube videos to news websites to this very webpage. There are a very finite number of CDNs in the world: companies like Akamai, Amazon Web Services, Level3, and Cloudflare control a significant share of the global CDN market, and by extension, transport the bulk of Internet traffic.

“Leave us alone”

Though there are a small number of CDNs, it’s a highly competitive market, much more than ISPs. But more than just being competitive, they control the flow of most data that flows over the Internet globally. They are a ‘middle mile’ that both customers and websites don’t have to think about; since a huge factor of a CDN’s competitiveness is how easy it is to set up (on the content creator’s side) and how fast and scalable access is (on the consumer’s side), it’s a very modular product. Modularity enables competitiveness because it decreases barriers to switch providers.

This environment encourages CDNs to be a largely overlooked participant in the global Internet’s infrastructure, at least as far as the public is concerned. The fact that CDNs are an enterprise product just adds to that obscurity.

So what have they said about Net Neutrality? As far as India is concerned, this is their contribution: “leave us alone.” They would much rather be excluded from Net Neutrality regulation than be a part of Net Neutrality dialogue. Why is this?

Neutrality by competition

Perhaps this is the reason: the economics of the Internet make it easier and less expensive to just sign on with a CDN instead of doing it yourself. Only companies like Google, Microsoft and Amazon are in a position to deploy their own CDNs — and have it be cheaper than paying someone else to do it. Pretty much every web company has a third party CDN provider. But since companies are usually savvier customers than individual Internet users, they generally reach smarter individually negotiated agreements. This obviously makes the market more competitive.

But then there’s the other part of the pipe between users and websites: ISPs. CDNs still have to deal with ISPs, and that is a huge part of what they have to do. In the case of smaller ISPs, they can just peer with a large Internet exchange and call it a day. But since ISPs in many countries are also wireless carriers that have monopolies (or duopolies) in several territories, they’re often large enough to warrant individual negotiation. And this is where Net Neutrality stands to be threatened.

There’s not nearly enough literature out there on how CDNs and ISPs could reach anti-competitive agreements. A very obvious (but simplified and unlikely) example would be this: Akamai goes to Airtel and says “I want interconnection with my network to be faster than interconnection with my competitors”. Since these deals are highly confidential, and since Net Neutrality violation detection is still nascent in the first place, this is very much a possibility.

I think CDNs are neutral among themselves, and reasonably among each other too. But this neutrality has come from competition, and not from regulation. In the absence of competition, or in case competition comes under threat from consolidation or lack of transparency, regulation needs to step in.

Theories for lack of participation

This is pure speculation (as compared to the above, which is just part speculation). Why, if CDNs have so much in stake re: Net Neutrality, with ISPs poised to gain more power in the US in negotiating terms with them, are they so absent from public discourse?

Theory 1: CDNs are pushing for Net Neutrality, but see no need to make these efforts public as they are B2B entities who gain no value from public posturing.

Theory 2: CDNs support Net Neutrality, but don’t want to invest significant resources in pushing for it since they already have a comfortable relationship with ISPs around the world, and don’t see any long-term threat in the absence of regulation.

Theory 3: CDNs do not support Net Neutrality, as this would make it easier for them to gain competitive advantages over other CDNs while negotiating with ISPs; and reduce the overall scrutiny they get as a business.

While the cynic in me leans towards Theory 3, I think Theory 2 is more likely, but I am unsure of the extent of support CDNs have for Net Neutrality, considering that they have actively had an unintentional role in undermining it, even if only technically so, by making themselves a more viable option to transport data than doing so yourself. Purists would argue that the level playing field risks being distorted when the infrastructure for data transportation is in the hands of a few; while free market advocates would say that it’s good that a highly competitive and affordable industry has cropped up to meet the needs of several organizations that can’t afford to get online on their own.

Nevertheless, CDNs’ silence in the Net Neutrality debate is curious and deserves to be interrogated.

Header image: Kanoha via Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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