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"Net Neutrality" - An Explanatory Introduction

by Chauncey Tinker – 30 Nov 2017

The internet has become incredibly important to people throughout the world. The freedom it gives people to communicate today enables us to find information about and question everything our governments and big corporations do (among of course a great many other good things such as enabling us to watch kitten videos). Individuals and companies can create websites such as this one and debate with people all around the world with ease.

Changes are afoot in the US in the way that the internet is regulated that could affect the whole world, even though in other parts of the world the rules for “net neutrality” may still exist or may never have been implemented in the first place. These changes may potentially give internet service providers (ISPs) the freedom to make it more difficult for people to access some websites, and easier to access other websites. Even if you live in the UK say you might sometimes want to access websites in the US, and it could possibly become harder in some cases (and easier in other cases) for you to do that if the changes go ahead.

A big problem in the debate about these changes is that they potentially affect everybody, but everybody is not a computer network engineer, and so most people are confused or even completely ignorant about changes that could affect their lives considerably. This is not just about how fast your kitten video downloads, or how much fun you can have playing computer games with your online buddies. This is a much bigger and more important question than that – it’s about the very freedom of information and debate that the internet has enabled. A revolution in human thought is taking place but as many fear it could soon be throttled by big business interests (that’s not to say it necessarily will be).

WHAT TO PUT OUT OF YOUR MIND IN THIS DEBATE

A lot of people seem to be confusing the “net neutrality” question with censorship that is occurring on Facebook, Twitter and Google. These are simply websites, the “net neutrality” rules have nothing to do with the censorship that the owners of particular websites may engage in – the phrase “net neutrality” is in fact too vague. To try to avoid that confusion recurring we should try to refrain from mentioning any specific websites (including search engines such as Google which are just websites as well) in this debate. The “net neutrality” rules regulate the way that data is transmitted around the underlying physical infrastructure, the cables and routers that make up the internet only.

The debate around this question has also been rather emotive with many people taking positions depending on their ideological viewpoint – whether they are pro-big government or anti-big government. The fact that “net neutrality” was introduced by the Obama administration counts as a big argument against the regulations in many people’s minds, the fact that the Trump administration wants to roll back the legislation similarly seems to be an argument for keeping the regulations in many other people’s minds. I think we should also try to put such political thoughts out of our minds and concentrate instead simply on the facts and arguments about what the real effects of the regulations actually are.

WHAT “NET NEUTRALITY” MEANS

Since readers of this post may have different levels of knowledge of the internet and how it works, I think its worth starting with a very simple description of how the internet works to explain what the “net neutrality” regulations are about.

When we access content on the internet, that content gets divided up into little equally sized packets of data which are then transmitted through the cables/wires of the internet to your device be it a PC, smartphone or whatever. Meanwhile lots of other people’s data is also being transmitted down the same wires in little packets at the same time. Finally the data that makes up your kitten video or whatever arrives at your computer and the little packets are re-assembled back together again enabling you to watch the video seamlessly.

Today the net neutrality regulations currently in place require that every one of those little data packets is treated with equal priority by the internet service providers whose cables your data travels through. That means that e.g. the kitten video that someone else is watching somewhere else on the internet is given exactly equal priority per data packet as you had when you clicked on the link to this web page. The average kitten video is a file much larger in size than this web page, although such is the speed of the internet nowadays that you don’t really notice the difference. All the data packets are the same size – so the kitten video may be split into say 1000 packets but this web page might be split into say just 10 packets because this page is a much smaller file (sizes not accurate, these are example sizes just for illustration).

The download speed of your internet connection is also a factor in how fast you receive data, as is the upload speed of the websites you access, but once those little packets of data are out on as it were the main superhighways travelling towards you they (each individual packet) are all being treated as equally important as any other data packets (as things stand today).

A MULTI-SPEED INTERNET

The internet service providers (ISPs) are complaining that these rules requiring equal treatment of all the data packets are too restrictive, they would like to provide say faster speeds to customers who pay more. That could mean for example that the little packets that make up that kitten video might be given a higher priority enabling them to travel faster than the little packets that made up this web page. You can easily make quite a good argument for allowing different speeds – the transmission of medical records in a patient emergency for example could certainly be seen as deserving a higher priority than the kitten video.

The fear however is that the ISPs might decide to slow some data down so much that it becomes frustrating to the affected users. It could even become a means to censor some content that the ISPs objected to. Say perhaps someone creates a website that is dedicated to criticizing the behaviour of the ISPs, the ISPs could slow down traffic to that website to the point that it becomes almost impossible to access it (a process known as “throttling”). You might even get a situation where somebody with a large shareholder stake in an ISP might decide that any websites that supported political parties that they opposed should be throttled, and so public political debate could be damaged considerably.

The ISPs say that removing these regulations will enable them to invest in expensive new equipment – faster cables and routers, because they will be able to charge some customers more and recoup the investment. The new head of the US communications watchdog the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) says that investment has stagnated since the “net neutrality” rules were introduced in 2015. As more people use the internet for more things and files get bigger (for example as kitten videos become higher in quality), that lack of investment could start to cause a problem in time, although the internet today is pretty fast and not many people seem to be complaining about the speeds at the moment.

WHY “NET NEUTRALITY” REGULATIONS WERE INTRODUCED

In the early days of the internet the “net neutrality” regulations did not exist, but the internet just was neutral, all data was treated with equal priority in the beginning. The idea of prioritizing some data traffic over other traffic had simply not yet occurred to anybody.

Then people started to realize that they could use the internet for illegal things such as sharing illegally copied music and video files (a practice known as “file-sharing”). Compared to what most people had been transmitting on the internet until then, these files were huge and used a lot of bandwidth. The internet infrastructure at that time was not able to cope with the increased volume of data that was being transmitted, and consequently the speed of data transmission started to slow down for everybody.

Some ISPs started to throttle the data that was coming from the file-sharing websites in order to allow others using the internet to carry on experiencing reasonable speeds. Since the activity affected was illegal in this case, this might seem reasonable enough to most people, although probably not so much to hard-up music-loving students. ISPs also started introducing different tiers for different types of legal applications so that say people playing computer games had to pay more to get a reasonable speed. As long as this was done transparently and not anti-competitively then again most people might see this as reasonable enough.

Another concern though was that as large conglomerates that own ISPs get larger still by buying up other kinds of companies, competition could be adversely affected. For example if there are rival websites and one website was owned by a conglomerate that also owned an ISP, then the conglomerate could damage its competitor’s websites by slowing down or blocking altogether the traffic to their sites. An actual example of this was seen in the case of Madison River Communications Corp., during the time when voice over IP (VOIP) services were starting to emerge (these services represented a significant challenge to the existing telephone service providers (telcos) whose wires they used). From CNET:

Telco agrees to stop blocking VoIP calls

This kind of anti-competitive behaviour is difficult to justify, and its hard to argue the case that this sort of thing did not need to be regulated against (although please feel free to put that case if you think you have a good argument in the comments below). I suppose that the action of the FCC in this case however might suggest that the existing regulatory framework was already working, although I haven’t looked into this in enough detail yet to come to any particular conclusion.

It seems that so far the question of how political discourse might be affected had not even entered the debate on “net neutrality”. However given how the largest companies seem to often lean towards a particular political orthodoxy (or perhaps it might be that they tend to lean towards the current PREVAILING political orthodoxy), its not difficult to see how this might eventually become a feature of the debate as well. This seems all the more possible considering how polarized the political spectrum seems to be becoming these days.

CONCLUSION

I have yet to make my mind up about where I stand in this debate, I can see strengths and weaknesses of the arguments on both sides. As its a rather huge topic I have decided to break it up into a series of posts – more to follow, but I think this is a fair introduction to the subject.

This debate gets to larger issues such as monopolies and whether we should classify large infrastructures as “public utilities” or give the free market free reign – I will examine these questions in a future post. Although I am generally skeptical about government regulations because I think that government regulations often have very bad unintended consequences, I am still inclined to think that it is over-simplistic to just conclude that all government interference is necessarily bad. After all, every country in the world today has regulations (laws correctly speaking) against acts of violence for example. Very few people argue that such laws should not exist. The US government today is also not proposing to sweep away all regulation in the area of “net neutrality”, but rather to simply replace what it describes as heavy regulation with light regulation.

RESOURCES:

FCC FACT SHEET – Restoring Internet Freedom

ELSEWHERE ON THE WEB:

Here is a pro-net neutrality article from “The Register”:

FCC boss Ajit Pai emits his net neutrality extermination plan

Quote:

The freedom that comes with these rules will be the freedom of companies to charge more or less what they want for internet services, which turns out not to be ideal for US consumers who have few if any choices among internet service providers.

 

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