I saw someone on Twitter looking for a definition of net neutrality that was objective, and doubting it was possible.
Here is my attempt, and I am going to maybe cheat a little by trying to give two perspectives. Disclaimer: I am for net neutrality.
The Case For
Everything seems to run over the internet these days. Let me focus on one that captures most of it: Television. Hip young folks are “cord cutters” by not having cable TV, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t addicted to TV, they watch it over the internet instead. They aren’t stuck with what their local cable company offers, they can go to Net Flix or Hulu or Amazon or some new outfits I haven’t heard of. Cool, competition. Except we have a near monopoly in how we get internet access. We can get it from the local cable company or maybe the local telephone company, and both of them are also selling TV channels and don’t want to be their own competition, or at least they want to make more money for that; so Net Flix might have a great connection to the internet and you might have a great connection to the internet, but when the packets are nearly at your door, and they hit Comcast’s wires, Comcast might intentionally slow down Net Flix’ data packets unless Net Flix pays Comcast a little something extra. Maybe a future Timewarnercomcast is powerful enough they simply refuse any TV streaming over internet connections they sell, and you would have to buy their TV offerings.
Net neutrality wants to prevent that and say that if Comcast wants to charge you for your internet connection, fine, but they can’t then charge others for your connection and slow them down (or block them) if they don’t pay. In the past cable companies have been caught blocking and slowing various kinds of data, even though they had denied doing so. By making internet service providers “common carriers” (a bit like phone companies back when the telephone was new and important), the FCC can regulate this behavior.
The Case Against
Cable companies and telephone companies have spent a lot of money building their networks and they want a free hand in how they make money off that investment. They want the freedom to partner with this company or that for offer new products with this or that cool feature. This regulation means they can’t make those deals if they discriminate against other companies that aren’t part of the deal. This regulation puts them in a boring business of offering a commodity service. Also, this regulation is regulation. They have an ideological objection to regulation.
Net neutrality is hard to precisely define. Really hard. The internet is a whole series of protocols that define how different computers talk to each other. How is an e-mail sent vs. how is an HD movie streamed vs. how is a video chat handled. Very different services and the documents that just define the technical details of how they work are plenty long and complicated. It is hard enough to craft these protocols so they will work in the first place, do they also have to be net neutral? And what does that mean, down in the nittygritty details of some protocol only a few people really understand?
The internet is quite open and if you want to define a new protocol for your new wizbang product, go ahead! It is possible it can be defined in terms of lower-level protocols and run on the internet as-is, or you might need to convince others to cooperate with your new protocol. Does the rest of the internet have to add support for your new protocol? What is neutral?
Here is a concrete example: e-mail. Spam is a big problem, and one of the ways to fight it is to limit which computers are allowed to send e-mail messages to other computers. The logic being that Joe Average isn’t sending e-mail directly from his computer to my computer, but rather he is sending the e-mail to, say, gmail and Google will send the message on to, say, Yahoo, and I will have my computer collect the message from Yahoo. A problem arises when some piece of malware infects Joe Average’s computer it is starts sending vast amounts of spam directly to thousands of accounts at gmail and Yahoo and Company XYZ and everyone gets annoyed and says that Something Must be Done. Okay, a common thing is to have Joe’s internet provider block that direct e-mail traffic. It will still let Joe talk to gmail, so legitimate e-mail will go through, just not the bulk spam. Except I run my own e-mail server. When I send an e-mail it doesn’t go first to Yahoo, instead it first goes to my basement and from there goes to the final destination at gmail or Yahoo or Company XYZ. If my internet provider blocks that I’ll be pissed! Should internet providers block this kind of traffic or not? It is a legitimate question with more than one answer. And it is not obvious what the “neutral” answer is. Probably it is to block those messages from Joe’s computer (he doesn’t mind) but not from mine (I do mind). That is how it mostly is at the moment. How complicated! And should it be allowed? Is it net neutral? Will the FCC continue to let me run my own e-mail server?
Another example: video streaming vs. video conferencing. These are different kinds of traffic and they should be handled differently–for important technical reasons. In the case of video streaming I am probably watching something recorded anyway, so it doesn’t really matter if I see a given frame of the movie at one moment or another–a three-second delay isn’t important, what is important is I want it to flow smoothly without breakup or stopping, and if three-seconds of buffering makes it work better, please buffer. If I am in a video conference, however, the circumstance is quite different: I want what I say to get to the other end quickly and I want whatever is said on the other end to get back to me quickly, I don’t want a three-second delay! If this means sometimes the picture deteriorates or the audio cuts out for a fraction of a second, then that’s the price I pay for wanting a live conversation. Should the routing protocols on the internet be allowed to differentiate between these different kinds of traffic? Can they try to schedule when different kinds of packets are sent down their wires to try to keep everyone happy?
No commercial considerations here, but solid technical issues complicating what “neutral” means.
So maybe net neutrality just kicks in when someone wants to pay for special treatment?
Okay, what about teleconferencing companies, they want their products to be better than the competition. Currently they send representatives to the standards committees that define the protocols, and they try to push the standard definition in a direction so their products will be better. Annoying, but it does get us some kind of standard that might work, and if the standard is too broken with company-specific garbage others won’t adopt it. Under net neutrality are they not allowed to participate in those standard committees? Are people free to not adopt a badly written standard? Does the FCC write all the standards? (Oh, that will put a stop to innovation.)
Another case might be CNN doing a remote feed, but wanting to do it over the internet–everything goes over the internet these days right? In this case they want it both ways: they want a good quality signal and they want a conversation without delays. Should they be able to pay for that priority treatment? Or are they forever cursed to use satellites and all the delays involved there? In oldendays television networks were allowed to buy from regulated phone companies special services that could handle their video, seems that something like that should still be allowed. But it is complicated.
Or what about Net Flix? When the new season of House of Cards comes out, millions of people might all be watching the same program at about the same time. Net Flix’ network needs to have capacity for all of that to flow at once, and the next network they connect to also has to have all the capacity. Were I designing such a distribution system I would think about caching popular content near the edges of the network. Send Season 3 once to a bunch of file servers scattered all around the country, and them let those file servers send it on to all those binge watchers. The total load on Net Flix’ hardware and the internet as a whole would be reduced. Should net neutrality permit that? Who is allowed to pay whom what to rent what space to place those file servers connected to what network?
Airplanes don’t allow people to make phone calls over their wifi services. At first it might have been to protect their expensive telephone service. Is that neutral? And now that airlines have mostly lost interest in these phone services because no one uses them, they still block voice calls over their wifi service because other passengers don’t want to have to listen to all that gabbing for hours at a time. (Thank goodness! It would drive me crazy.) Is that neutral? Airlines also don’t allow streaming video over their wifi because they don’t have enough bandwidth for more than a couple streams and they have a plane full of passengers who might want to stream and if more than a couple tried no one would get good airborne wifi for anything. Is that neutral? Airlines also sell movies, is that still neutral? And the airlines aren’t streaming those for-sale movies directly from the studios who made then, no they have cached them on file servers on the planes when they are on the ground and can just plug in a new disk. Is it neutral for the airlines to do that? (Was it neutral for Net Flix?)
I present a lot of questions here, and there are at least partial answers to many of these questions, and my point is that net neutrality is a technical mess and the technical details are not obvious to anyone. Still I am in favor of trying to sort it out anyway, because as bad as that result will be, letting the timewarnercomcastverizon monopoly decide will be worse.
©2015 Kent Borg