Setting The Record Straight: Net Neutrality
Between the recent hullabaloo about the Fairness Doctorine, the FCC's
dismissal of Net Neutrality, and the general Web 2.0 craze Americans
are going to be hearing about the Net Neutrality issue a lot --
particularly as it becomes the hot-button technology issue in the 2008
election. Unfortunately, for all the American Media talks about Net
Neutrality, precious little time is spent actually explaining what's
behind the 21st Century's first real political brand. When all's said and done, there are three key concepts to keep in mind.
Net Neutrality Is The Internet You Knew
Right now, as you read this article, Net Neutrality is the practice, if
not the law, of most of the modern Internet. What Net Neutrality
activists seek is not a revision of the rules of the Internet but
rather the codification of what already happens for the most part and
what existed across the board in at the height of the network's
expansion. At present, these are de facto rules of the road though,
like many rules, they are violated on the sly. In fact, the Internet
has been Neutral since its inception, though ever less so in recent
years. Every shred of growth though the early 1990s, the dot com
bubble, the dot com crash, the web 2.0 bubble -- even the really high
end applications like intercontinental video conferencing and massively
distributed computing -- have taken place on a Neutral Internet.
Net Neutrality Is About Who, Not What
A Neutral Internet doesn't mean that all information is treated the same but rather that all information providers
are treated the same. Vast swaths of the Internet, to say nothing of
your personal Internet Service Provider, prioritize and order requests
based on what is in them. This prioritization is very
important to the day to day functionality of the Internet and the Net
Neutrality movement doesn't seek to change that at all.
What the major telecom companies want to be able to do is prioritize traffic based on who
sent it. The highest priorities would be reserved for the corporations
with the cash to pay for the premium service and everybody else would
be left to fight over whatever is left of the Internet. If this sounds
like the way your Internet connection already works then perhaps an
example of how packets actually get routed across the network will
serve to illustrate. Thanks to Ted "Tubes" Stephens, most Americans are
aware that the Internet is not a series of tubes or a dump truck.
Metaphor, however, sweeps away some of the confusing bits so this
example will use a highway as an imperfect but serviceable stand-in for
the Internet as a whole.
A Neutral Internet
A truck belonging to Wal-Mart
leaves the Port of Los Angeles heading East to a destination in
Chicago. It must first exit the port though whatever local road serves
it. Once out on the highway it has to pass through a number of states.
California and Illinois are the obvious ones as that is where its
origin and destination are to be found, but to reach Illinois from
California it must also pass through a number of intermediary states
including Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, and Iowa. Now the truck's
speed is limited, first by the speed limits on the Port of Los Angeles'
local roads and second by the speed limits on the Interstate Highways
in the various states it must pass through. Some states may force
trucks to go slower than cars to deal with congestion problems and,
like the various other trucks on the road, the example Wal Mart truck
will follow those laws. When it arrives in Chicago, it will again be
forced to obey whatever local speed limits exist on the road leading to
A Non-Neutral Internet
same truck leaves the Port of Los Angeles, still constrained by the
speed limits on the Port's access roads. Once it hits the open highway,
however, things change. The speed limit for truck traffic in California
is 65 miles per hour, but because this truck belongs to Wal
Mart it is allowed to go as fast as it can. Police may stay ahead of
the truck, shutting down a lane in anticipation of its passing, so that
it has a clear shot through the state. Wal Mart of course pays for this
privilege in California and every other state along the truck's route.
In the mean-time, less affluent traffic or non-corporate drivers are
pushed over into the right hand lane by a constant stream of Wal Mart
trucks and police escorts. When the Wal-Mart truck arrives in Chicago
it slows down to obey speed limits on the local roads.
In both examples the rate at which trucks (representing data-packets on
the Internet) can get on and off the highway (major Internet backbones)
is limited by the capacity of the local access roads (Internet
connections). Different states (major backbone networks like Verizon
and Sprint) will have different rules for their highway systems and
traffic must obey those rules. In the Neutral example however, highway
speed limits and lane use are determined by what
a particular vehicle is: emergency vehicles go as fast as possible, HOV
lanes might exist, as well as commercial lane and speed restrictions
for heavy trucks. In the Non-Neutral example all of this remains true,
but states can strike deals with specific freight carriers for
exclusive use of a lane, or even the entire highway. This may end up
forcing everyone else to suffer for corporate convenience and creating
a system of limits and rules based on who rather than what.
Net Neutrality Isn't Just About Google and Amazon
Since industry giants like Google and Amazon jumped on the Net
Neutrality bandwagon the telecoms have been claiming that these
companies just want the consumers to shoulder the burden of paying for
infrastructural improvements to the Internet. While it is true that
Google and Amazon do stand to save a fairly hefty sum if the Internet
stays Neutral, the significance of these two companies and what they do
can not be ignored.
Google is only recently becoming a "destination" website. The
Internet giant's bread and butter has always been and remains "search."
Google thus has a serious and vested interest, not just in keeping its
own bandwidth bills low, but also in helping keep the billions of
websites that its users are looking for up and running. In a very real
sense, Google has little choice but to protect the Internet as best it
can. Its primary revenue stream depends on the continued expansion and
availability of massive amounts of content - most of which lacks
Google's ability to pay for bandwidth should the need arise. With over
$100 Billion in market capitalization, Google has little to fear from a
hike in the cost of bandwidth. Far from looking for a free ride, Google
has the most altruistic of of intents for the most self-serving of
Amazon operates, surprisingly, along similar lines. While Amazon is
often a destination location on the Internet, its real genius stems
from its referral program. With millions of bloggers, reviewers,
writers, and critics that either host Amazon stores or link to Amazon's
site, Amazon depends heavily upon the health and vibrancy of the
"little guy" to sell its wares. Like Google, Amazon can certainly
afford its bandwidth costs - the fear is that its innumerable referrers
can not. As such Amazon, like Google, finds itself advocating against a
policy that would provide it with the premium service necessary to
crush its competition.
All of this matters because speed is the same thing as accessibility
online. Starved for bandwidth, a website effectively vanishes from the
Internet. On a Non-Neutral Internet, network providers can effectively
shut down websites critical of their corporate practices or simply sell
the exclusive right to argue a point or position to the highest bidder.
Without Neutrality the openness and low barriers to entry that have
characterized, for better or worse, the web as a whole come crashing
down. Today the crowd decides, in wisdom or foolishness, which
websites, media, and ideas to embrace based upon content. Tomorrow
conglomerates rather than crowds and money rather than merit may make
those decisions for them.