Another Side of Net Neutrality

Net neutrality sounds good on paper, but is all traffic really created equal? Perhaps, and perhaps not, as P. J. Connolly of eWEEK Labs points out in a discussion of why carriers and ISPs ought to direct Internet traffic with the goal of network efficiency, without putting up roadblocks.

The FCC has been in the news lately for its attempts to get serious about regulating the actions of Internet service providers, in the name of what parties to the discussion call "Net neutrality." The most fluff-brained of commenters seem to be following the idea that, to borrow the words of Thomas Jefferson, all Internet traffic is created equal.

Jefferson's famous line from the Declaration of Independence was rephrasing the words of his friend and neighbor Philip Mazzei, who in 1774 wrote in the Virginia Gazette: "All men are by nature equally free and independent. Such equality is necessary in order to create a free government. All men must be equal to each other in natural law."

Jefferson, as a slaveowner and a scion of the Virginia gentry, did not mean that all persons are gifted with the same abilities or advantages. Such an idea would have been as ridiculous in his time as it is today, whether we speak of people or packets.

The problem with a Jeffersonian approach to Net neutrality is that all Internet packets are not equal, when one looks at traffic from an engineering standpoint. Why? The answer is network latency.

We run into latency every day, when we try to stream video or audio, or move a file from one device to another. Anyone who has waited for YouTube to buffer, or a stalled download to restart, has run into the problem.

The reality is that simple file transfers can handle brief interruptions without significantly detracting from the user experience. Video streams, in direct contrast, cannot. Audio streaming is slightly less brittle than video in its ability to tolerate network congestion, but is more demanding than an ordinary file transfer.

The mechanisms for controlling and prioritizing network traffic are well-defined, at least from an engineering perspective. Quality of service, or QoS, has been a well-understood concept in networking for years, and I have no problem with a carrier that prioritizes its traffic based on what the traffic does, but I'm less comfortable with prioritizing based on where the traffic's going.

Some degree of traffic shaping is necessary to enable the best service levels for the most customers, and to facilitate the peering agreements that make the Internet possible in the first place. But some supporters of Net neutrality want to throw this baby out with the bath water.

Much of the discussion of net neutrality focuses on network access. For much of that discussion, I'm in the "equal access" camp; carriers and ISPs ought to allow traffic across their networks without unreasonable restrictions as to destination, source or type. The FCC was slapped down by a U.S. appeals court in early April for its attempts at ensuring that carriers and ISPs follow that rule. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is going to have another try at establishing this principle, by declaring that ISPs are subject to the same rules as telephone networks, and I wish him success.

Obviously, network operators have the right (and perhaps the duty) to forbid malicious traffic; but who decides what is malicious? That job belongs to the people (acting through government), not the carriers.

I become especially cross when a carrier or ISP flat-out blocks certain traffic because it competes with its own services, or because it belongs to a certain application class. Peer-to-peer services such as BitTorrent are especially prone to being targeted by carriers and ISPs, as well as technically unsophisticated politicians, because they are seen as facilitating copyright violations and even less savory activities.

But the last time I looked, we don't require Soviet-style controls on photocopiers that might be used to make unauthorized copies. We don't outlaw "The Anarchist Cookbook" because someone might pick up a copy and use it to make something that goes "boom." This is still America, and in the America I know and love, we outlaw actions and deeds. We do not outlaw thoughts, or tools that have legitimate applications, but might-in an extreme case-be misused.

But some will ask, the carriers and ISPs are private businesses; don't they have a right to police the traffic on their networks? They do, but only in a very limited sense. They do business with the help of government and in the public interest, in the form of franchise agreements and rights-of-way across (and under) public and private land, and by use of the radio spectrum. In exchange for this, we must require a certain level of hands-off behavior and demand that they make their networks available to all comers.

That's what Net neutrality ought to be about: ensuring equal access to the network, without compromising the network's benefit to the widest possible number of users.